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A Framework for the Government of Canada to Assess Privacy-Impactful Initiatives in Response to COVID-19

April 2020


The safety and security of the public is of grave concern in the current COVID-19 health crisis. The urgency of limiting the spread of the virus is understandably a significant challenge for government and public health authorities, who are looking for ways to leverage personal information and “Big Data” to contain and gain insights about the novel virus and the global threat it presents. In this context, we may see more extraordinary and less voluntary measures being contemplated, and some of these measures will have significant implications for privacy and civil liberties.

During a public health crisis, privacy laws and other protections still apply, but they are not a barrier to the appropriate collection, use and sharing of information. When reasonably and contextually interpreted, existing privacy legislation, norms and best practices for data collection, use and disclosure ensure responsible data use and sharing that supports public health. They also promote continued trust in our health system and in government generally.

All organizations must continue to operate under lawful authority and act responsibly, particularly with respect to handling personal health information, and information about individuals’ travel, movements and contacts or association ̶ all of which are generally considered sensitive. In scenarios involving public-private partnerships, where the lawful authority relied upon for collection is consent provided by individuals to a private-sector partner, the public-sector organization should approach its own collection of that information by ensuring the private-sector framework is properly applied, including meaningfulness of consent.

Privacy protection isn’t just a set of technical rules and regulations, but rather represents a continuing imperative to preserve fundamental human rights and democratic values, even in exceptional circumstances. Government institutions should still apply the principles of necessity and proportionality, whether in applying existing measures or in deciding on new actions to address the current crisis. Purpose limitation, that is, ensuring that personal information collected, used or disclosed for public health reasons is not used for other reasons, is particularly important in current circumstances. How personal information is safeguarded, and how long it is retained after the crisis, is also crucial.

The COVID-19 public health crisis has raised exceptionally difficult challenges to both privacy and public health. The following are key privacy principles that should factor into any assessment of measures proposed to combat COVID-19 that have an impact on the privacy of Canadians. It accompanies our previously issued guidance to help departments and organizations subject to federal privacy laws understand their privacy-related obligations during the COVID-19 outbreak. For guidance on other privacy principles that continue to apply, please read Expectations: OPC’s Guide to the Privacy Impact Assessment Process.


1) Legal Authority:

Identify the legal authority to collect, use, and disclose personal information.

Key Messages:

  • All organizations must continue to operate with lawful authority. This means, for federal government institutions, the Privacy Act and specific laws that govern their activities; for private-sector organizations, PIPEDA or substantially similar provincial laws; and special provisions that may be adopted under emergency laws. (For more information, see our guidance: Privacy and the COVID-19 outbreak).
  • Privacy laws apply to personal information, that is information about an identifiable individual. This is so even when using “open” or public sources such as social media, although the reasonable expectation of privacy may be less for such sources. Some laws also allow for use of publicly available data under specific conditions. (See also principle four: de-identification.)

2) Necessity and Proportionality:

Ensure the measures that the government institution wants to take are necessary and proportionate.

The OPC recognizes that the COVID-19 crisis is a rapidly evolving situation that requires swift and effective responses to address extraordinary public health needs. The right to privacy is not absolute. However, even in these challenging circumstances, government institutions should still ensure that their measures are necessary and proportionate, which means essentially evidence-based, necessary for the specific purpose identified and not overbroad.

Key Messages:

  • The public health purpose underlying a potentially privacy infringing measure must be science-based and defined with some specificity. It is not enough to simply state that a measure supports public health without being more precise.
  • The measure must be tailored in a way that is rationally connected to the specific purpose to be achieved. If the purpose of a measure is to reduce the occurrence of large gatherings in public places, mass collection of all movements of a population would not be proportionate.
  • The measure must be necessary; that is, more than potentially useful. Again, it must be evidence-based and likely to be effective. However, demonstrating effectiveness must be assessed in context. Also, necessity does not mean “absolute necessity” (i.e., that no other conceivable means are available, regardless of costs).

The document Expectations: OPC’s Guide to the Privacy Impact Assessment Process contains a number of Questions for high-risk programs: necessity, effectiveness, proportionality and minimal intrusiveness that, read in context, can assist government institutions in assessing the privacy impact of measures to address COVID-19.

3) Purpose Limitation:

Personal information collected, used or disclosed to alleviate the public health effects of COVID-19 must not be used for other reasons.

Key Messages:

  • This is particularly important in the current context, where more personal information may be collected, used and disclosed than in normal circumstances. Individuals’ reasonable expectation of privacy may be less in a public health crisis, but they would not reasonably expect that sensitive information (such as health or places or persons visited) would be available for other government or commercial purposes.
  • Personal information collected in an emergency situation should also be destroyed when the crisis ends, except for narrow purposes such as research or ensuring accountability for decisions made during the crisis, particularly decisions about individuals. (see also principle nine: Time Limitation)

4) De-Identification and other safeguarding measures:

Use de-identified or aggregate data whenever possible.

Key Messages:

  • Consider whether identifiable information is required in the context, or if de identified or aggregate data is sufficient.
  • Be aware that there is always a real risk of re-identification, although it is generally less for aggregate data. It is important to be attentive to the risks, which are highly case-specific - dependent on what data is used, in what form, and with what other data it is combined, and with whom it will be shared.
  • Be especially mindful about the unique challenges with location data:
    • Location data points themselves can lead to reidentifcation as they can reveal personal details, such as the location of an individual’s home, routine behaviours, and associations.
    • Precise location data, particularly in real-time, can be very challenging to fully anonymize or de-identify.
  • Take administrative, technical and physical means to protect the personal information collected. Ensure safeguards are enhanced for sensitive information.

5) Vulnerable Populations:

Consider the unique impacts on vulnerable groups.

Key Messages:

  • Consider how certain information, such as health and precise location data, may have greater sensitivities or disproportionate impacts on vulnerable populations and certain groups of individuals, for example:
    1. For some individuals, the collection of health-related data concerning gender, gender identity and expression is of even greater sensitivity.
    2. Data sets on populations, or subsets of populations, may affect different subgroups or communities with disproportionate consequences.
    3. Algorithmic decision-making or AI may contain inherent biases that could create disproportionate impacts.

6) Openness and Transparency:

Provide clear and detailed information to Canadians about new and emerging measures, on an ongoing basis.

Key Messages:

  • Transparency is a cornerstone of democratic governance, as well as our privacy laws. It is all the more vital in the midst of a crisis, when extraordinary measures are being contemplated.
  • The public, and wherever possible individuals, must be informed of the purpose of the collection of their personal information.

7) Open Data:

Carefully weigh the benefits and risks of the release of public datasets, giving particular attention to health and location data, and impacts on vulnerable populations.

Key Messages:

  • An assessment of how granular public datasets should be is context-specific.
  • Even with the release of aggregate data, be attentive to the impacts on vulnerable populations, subsets of populations, and groups. Give particular attention when geolocation data is involved, as it can disproportionately impact marginalized and vulnerable communities.

8) Oversight and Accountability:

New laws and measures specific to the crisis should also provide specific provisions for oversight and accountability.

Key Messages:

  • Institutional safeguards become more, not less, important during times of crisis.
  • New laws should contain provisions for oversight and accountability.

9) Time Limitation:

Privacy invasive measures should be time-limited, with obligations to end when they are no longer required.

Key Messages:

  • There should be strict time and other limits on measures implemented in response to the crisis (e.g. type and range of personal data collection, sharing, and use). Time limits should be conservative, with the option to extend.
  • Personal information collected in an emergency situation should also be destroyed when the crisis ends, except for narrow purposes such as research or ensuring accountability for decisions made during the crisis.
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