As COVID-19 pushes more and more Canadians online to work and shop, the pandemic is demonstrating the need for better laws on data use and privacy, the country’s privacy watchdog warned the federal government Thursday. “This year, the COVID-19 pandemic makes the significant gaps in our legislative framework all the more striking,” wrote Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien in his annual report, tabled in Parliament today. “This rapid societal transformation is taking place without the proper legislative framework to guide decisions and protect fundamental rights.”
Therrien said most interactions taking place online now — such as remote work, socializing with friends, logging into school or discussing health issues with a doctor — use commercial videoconferencing technology. The situation comes with risks, he said, including commercial enterprises collecting exchanges between doctors and patients or of e-learning platforms capturing sensitive information about students’ learning difficulties or behaviour.
Therrien said his office hasn’t investigated companies based on those risks yet, but added Canada needs laws that set limits on permissible uses of data and that do not rely “on the good will of companies to act responsibly.” He also said the pandemic has stirred up heated debates about privacy, including questions about the government’s contact tracing app (on which Therrien was consulted) and about Canadians being asked for personal health information or required to undergo temperature checks at airports or before entering workplaces and stores.
The privacy commissioner’s office has long argued for enforcement powers to go after those who violate Canadians’ privacy — including the ability to make binding orders and impose consequential administrative penalties for non-compliance with the law, writes CBC’s Catharine Tunney. Therrien’s office is also asking the federal government to define privacy as a human right, but he said he hasn’t seen much movement on the issue in government. “The short answer is I don’t know when the government will table privacy legislation. I see that a number of provinces apparently are getting weary of inaction by the federal government and are starting to act,” Therrien said.