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Alberta plan to use smartphones to enforce quarantines raises privacy questions

Image credit: Joe Fazio/CITYNEWS.

A privacy expert says Alberta’s plans to use smartphone technology to enforce quarantines should come with a clear end-date and detailed explanation of how data will be handled.

The move is one plank of a “relaunch strategy” outlined by Premier Jason Kenney in a televised speech Tuesday evening to re-open an already ailing provincial economy once it gets COVID-19 under control.

Sharon Polsky, president of the Privacy and Access Council of Canada, said most Canadians would understand the rationale behind using smartphone apps to make sure quarantine orders aren’t broken during a major public health crisis.

“But they would be, I think, much more inclined to trust these privacy-invasive measures if they had some certainty that these temporary measures would have a finite end,” she said Wednesday, adding emergency measures can always be renewed if necessary.

She said governments must also be transparent about who is collecting and processing the data, how it’s being used, where it will be stored and who will have access to it.

“Without that level of openness, people rightfully are distrusting.”

Polsky noted western governments were initially outraged that China monitored its citizens in this fashion as the pandemic spread there.

South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and several other governments also have made extensive use of smartphone technology to track people’s movements and keep the virus contained.

“Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to jump on that bandwagon. If it worked in one place, let’s use it somewhere else, including in Canada,” said Polsky.

Albertans could receive more details later Wednesday on the government’s plan.

Kenney said in his Tuesday speech that restrictions to slow down the spread of the novel coronavirus must continue, and a limit on public gatherings is expected to last through May.

After that, he said, Alberta will introduce a number of measures with the dual purpose of getting the economy moving again while making sure the virus remains contained.

Those measures are to include mass testing — up to as many as 20,000 tests a day — and expanded tracing of infection sources.

There is to be enhanced screening and quarantining of international visitors.

Kenney also said Alberta will encourage the widespread use of masks in crowded spaces such as mass transit.

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