Canada's privacy laws not robust as COVID-19 takes over tech

Shruti Shekar
·Telecom & Tech Reporter
·3-min read
Canada's Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien takes part in a news conference in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, April 25, 2019. REUTERS/Chris Wattie
REUTERS

Canada’s Privacy Commissioner is urging the federal government to create better laws to protect Canadians’ privacy as the global pandemic has forced many to work from home and use more digital tools.

Daniel Therrien tabled his annual report on Thursday, saying that Canada’s current laws are “simply not up to protecting our rights in our rapidly evolving digital environment.”

“Privacy and the pursuit of public health and economic recovery are not contradictory. They can, and must be, achieved concurrently,” he said in a press release. “We need a legal framework that will allow technologies to produce benefits in the public interest while also preserving our fundamental right to privacy. This is an opportune moment to demonstrate to Canadians that they can have both.”

Therrien highlighted the government’s work on the COVID-19 contact tracing app, indicating it has a good framework with privacy built from the foundation, however that same process needs to be implemented for essential activities.

“Telemedicine creates risks to doctor-patient confidentiality when virtual platforms involve commercial enterprises,” the press release read. “E-learning platforms can capture sensitive information about students’ learning disabilities and behavioural issues.”

The report said that the pandemic is creating challenges that “underscore” how privacy protection has to be something the government and companies should respect, and not something that is “free to do if they wish.”

“Canada was once a world leader on privacy, but federal privacy laws have fallen behind much of the rest of the world,” the release said.

Commissioner “frustrated” for Canadian citizens

During a press conference, Therrien added he was “frustrated for Canadian citizens” who have less privacy protection than citizens of about 40 countries that have updated privacy laws.

The last time Canada updated the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) was in 2015, whereas several other countries have spent the past several years updating their privacy laws.

“The most apparent reason for the government to take its time in acting appears to be a concern that privacy legislation might impede innovation and economic growth. This is an argument that we hear fairly frequently.”

“My point is that it is exactly the reverse. The status quo is that Canadians, at the level of 90 per cent, are concerned that their privacy is not protected. That is not conducive to trust,” he said.

Therrien added he’s spoken to about half a dozen federal ministers who were “sympathetic to the arguments” on updating laws but does not know when the government intends to make changes.

He noted that because of the lack of action, several provinces are starting to take action on their own.

“Apparently they are getting weary of inaction by the federal government,” he said.

“If Canada continues to lag behind, trust in the digital world, including the economy will further diminish, and there will be a competitive disadvantage for Canada.”

Image Credit: Office of the Privacy Commissioner
Image Credit: Office of the Privacy Commissioner

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