Privacy must be foremost in efforts to track and trace COVID-19, says B.C. watchdog

B.C.’s information and privacy commissioner says it’s appropriate for government and businesses to collect personal information to track the coronavirus, but only if it’s done right.

It comes as government looks to ramp up its ability to do contact tracing — the public health detective work of finding out every person an infected patient may have had close contact with while infectious.

READ MORE: What is coronavirus contact tracing and how important is it as Canada reopens?

One method B.C. health officials are investigating is the use of an app that would let public health quickly find out whether two people had been in proximity to one another.

McAvoy says any use of such apps must put privacy protection first.

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“Collect only the minimum amount of personal information from British Columbians, it’s going to have to be properly secured … that information that’s collected from every citizen is going to have to be used for only one purpose, and that’s to track and stamp out the virus,” McAvoy told Global News.

READ MORE: Trudeau says Ottawa will help fund coronavirus contact tracing across Canada

Officials must also take steps to securely destroy the information when the crisis is over, he added.

McAvoy said that for any such app to work, it would need to be downloaded by more than half of the province’s population, something that will require trust on the part of the public.

Earlier this week, McAvoy’s office also released guidance for cafes and restaurants about taking customers’ personal information.

The amended provincial health order allowing restaurants to resume dine-in service requires them, if possible, to collect and hold contact information for at least one member of a party for 30 days so that public health can contact them if there is a COVID-19 exposure.

The requirement has drawn criticism from some, including former B.C. attorney general Suzanne Anton, who tweeted “this is how we give our freedoms away. One little inconsequential drip after another.”

On Thursday, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the measure was suggested by the restaurant industry, but was a practical way to track the virus.

“If we have an exposure event in that setting, it allows us to contact people more rapidly, and make sure they have the info they need to keep themselves and their families safe,” said Henry.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: New Okanagan-developed app tracks physical distancing between employees

Henry pledged the information would only be accessed in the case of an exposure.

McAvoy says in an overall sense, it is a good thing that British Columbians are sensitive to the collection of their information.

“I think it’s a good thing,” he said.

“Citizens now are far more aware of what companies, what government is collecting about them. They’re attuned to that, they want to have some sense of control over their personal information and how its used and disclosed, and they want to make sure it’s being used for the right purpose.”

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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