Pandemic has raised unique privacy challenges

Spread of COVID-19 pushed individual privacy concerns into the background, former Ontario privacy commissioner tells BIV

Ann Cavoukian is one of the world’s foremost experts on privacy.

The former Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner developed the concept of end-to-end data security known commonly as “privacy by design.” She is executive director at the Privacy By Design Centre of Excellence in Toronto, where she also teaches at Ryerson University. Cavoukian is a keynote speaker May 6 at the Vancouver International Privacy & Security Summit. She spoke to BIV publisher and editor-in-chief Kirk LaPointe for a podcast at The following is an excerpt of the conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.

The pandemic has seen the spread of illness. Ann, what kind of spread of sensitive data have we seen?

Cavoukian: People are just not as careful anymore. Because one is stressed, and you’re in this unusual work situation, you can interact live with people. So I think it’s easy to overlook, perhaps, the sensitivity of the data and the protections that should be applied.

Was the world prepared to deal with privacy in the pandemic?

Cavoukian: I fear not at all, because there’s so many other concerns that are pressing on people when you can’t interact as you want to socially. I think the concerns of privacy became secondary, which I understand, but I think which will have some fallback. My fear is that the protection that should be accorded to personal information in terms of control, that it should be under the control of the data subject, the individual should decide what information should be disclosed. And to whom and should it be shared. I think those measures are being weakened. Because understandably, people are concerned about other issues. Like, who can I interact with? And how often and under what conditions, if any? And so I think, understandably, privacy is not the paramount. And that will have some implications over time.

Have you noticed the real pain points in our systems around all lack of privacy, poor security?

Cavoukian: What actually really concerns me is as a result of the pandemic, initially, the contact tracing that arose that people have been trying to meet, you know, couldn’t trace people in individuals, and that was very problematic. Apple and Google actually developed a very privacy protective framework for contact tracing, actually, they called it exposure notification. And it was wonderful. Apple called me and briefed me on two occasions, because they know I like to look under the hood. So they showed me exactly what they were doing all of the code that was involved, etc. and convinced me is truly privacy protective.

I’ve been very fascinated with the concept of the vaccine passport. I’m not convinced that it would work. It also is a fairly aggressive invasion of privacy.

Cavoukian: Totally. And individuals are being pressured into doing this. And I understand, you know, if you travel, you’re going to have to demonstrate that you’re not COVID-19 positive and that you’ve had a vaccine. But it’s the way in which you do that that is critical. The last thing we want is a centralized model, especially run by the government, of our vaccine information being widely shared and distributed with third parties unknown, and that’s completely unacceptable. This health data deserves the strongest privacy protection possible. I’m working with a group called ID 2020. And we’re developing what’s called the good health task blueprint. . .that basically ensures that the information is not retained centrally, is under control of the individual, and could only be used when the individual (is), say, at the airport and (has) to reveal I’ve had a vaccine passport. So I reveal digitally to the gate attendant or whoever they see it, they are enabled to allow me to fly on the plane, but they don’t retain the data. And it’s not retained centrally or anything.

How likely is it though, that we might even get to the point where we’re going to require something like a passport in order to get into a sports arena or a concert, or a workplace?

Cavoukian: I’m with you, I so regret it is going in that direction. I mean, they’re actually discussing concert and, you know, a football game or a baseball game or something like that, that you will have to reveal that you have a vaccine. I detest that truly. It’s a complete invasion of privacy. And our health information was never intended to be used in that manner. But I suspect that this is going to take place. And again, choice is yours. But you know, people want to go to concerts and resume a normal life. So at least they follow the good health pass blueprint that I’m working with ID 2020. I don’t like it, but at least be the most privacy protective manner in which this can

Have you concluded that it’s impossible to share the public health information without engendering an invasion of privacy?

Cavoukian: I am very fearful, so I don’t want to make any predictions. But it is completely unacceptable that our health data be used in this manner. And I suspect that it will be. And as much as I object to it or any other individuals object to it, there are unfortunately so many people who have been convinced, because of fear, that we have to go in this direction. You know, they’re scared. They’re scared of COVID, and and I fear that that will propel the acceptance of this kind of activity in areas where it does not belong.

It can seem to me like there is an unquestioning embrace of new technologies by younger generations, almost a new wave of threat. How well are we instructing our next generation of decision makers and leaders about risk consciousness here?

Cavoukian: Very good point. And I don’t think we’re instructional very well at all the youth who are loving accessing data, etc. Which is absolutely fine, but let’s get them to embrace encryption, which form provides the strongest protection of your data and enables to engage in all kinds of activities. And there’s homomorphic encryption, which is amazing, which allows data in encrypted manner to have lots of analyses done on it and statistical analyses, etc. Let’s educate people, all the benefits that can take place, with encryption and other privacy protected security protective means.

You advocate strong privacy protection, but does that have to come at the cost of not having properly furnished information?

Cavoukian: No, not at all. I was information and Privacy Commissioner for many years, three times. And it was never one versus the other. We have a right of access to what the government is doing. It’s our government. That should not be done in secret, there should be a right of access to that information. And it doesn’t in any way minimize the importance of protecting privacy and data protection, because that applies to a completely different set of information holdings – personal information on the part of individuals that does not belong to the government or the public or anyone that should be under the control of the individual, the data subject. So they were never at odds with each other.