Privacy in the era of COVID

Confidentiality between doctor and patient is taken quite seriously in Canada.

A certain level of trust is necessary on matters of healthcare, if nothing else than to ensure a patient can feel safe disclosing sensitive information to their doctor knowing certain things said during an examination won’t leave that room.

But what happens in the middle of a highly contagious pandemic when one person discovered to be carrying the virus could have potentially infected anyone they’ve been in contact with in the last two weeks?

That’s where things can get a bit murky. As much as we may not like it, sacrificing a bit of privacy to help slow a worldwide pandemic is worth it.

Even at the height of a typical flu season, someone testing positive for influenza wouldn’t make the news. In 2020 however local health units across the world are keeping track of the number of people who have tested positive for COVID-19, often with a brief description of their age, gender and where they may have been when they contracted the virus.

Granted, COVID-19 isn’t the flu and tracking that sort of information can be very beneficial to society. That doesn’t mean people have to like it. The last thing someone coping with a COVID-19 diagnoses wants to deal with is the potential backlash from the community who may blame them from bringing the virus into its borders. Quite frankly, they will have enough to worry about. Then again, in the interest of public safety, there’s value in knowing at least some details surrounding a positive test. Credit to KFLA Public Health, they’ve done an outstanding job of keeping the public informed while also protecting the privacy of those who test positive.

Unsurprisingly, reactions were mixed when the Canadian government released the Canada COVID-19 App. The completely voluntary app calls on users to report if they have tested positive for COVID-19, knowing full well that information will be used to send an alert to anyone who has the app who may have been in the same place as someone who tested positive for the virus. The benefits are obvious-if someone was near a stranger who had COVID-19, they too could get tested and self isolate until they found out the results. If they themselves test positive, they could remain isolated until their symptoms subside.

The drawbacks however are potentially endless to anyone with an active imagination.

If it’s any consolation, both federal and Ontario’s provincial privacy commissioners have reviewed the app and deemed it to be safe. They concluded that the information remains anonymous and no personal information will be disclosed. The app doesn’t use GPS tracking and doesn’t track a user’s location.

There will no doubt still be some who don’t trust the app, which is of course their choice. However it’s been noted the app collects less data than social media platforms such as Facebook. Most people would probably shudder if they realized just how much of their personal information is collected from population apps and given to third parties. At least when it comes to the app, there’s a potential to save lives.

Adam Prudhomme

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