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Canada’s telecom regulator has dismissed a request to assume much broader oversight of the industry’s involvement in contact tracing, but says it will continue monitoring the issue as technological efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 evolve.

The Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC), a consumer advocacy group, filed an application earlier this month requesting that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) undertake several measures relating to the use of mobile-phone apps and location data gleaned from telecom networks to monitor people’s movements.

The consumer group had requested that all telecom providers disclose any steps they’ve taken to facilitate contact tracing for either governments or corporations, and that the CRTC prohibit them from using any of their existing databases, such as those from marketing programs, to track COVID-19 without getting fresh consent from their customers. The group also asked the CRTC to appoint an officer to report on contact tracing and to communicate with public-health authorities and governments on the issue.

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The regulator denied the request on Wednesday, saying in a letter that all contact-tracing apps currently available or in the works are outside of its purview because they rely solely on Bluetooth technology, rather than on location data generated when mobile phones ping cell towers. Scott Hutton, the CRTC’s chief of consumer, research and communications, also noted that the country’s privacy commissioners have already addressed the issue, but said the regulator will keep an eye on the situation and request information from telecom providers when needed.

The news comes as governments mull ways that technology can help public-health staff with the labourious process of contact tracing, or alerting friends or coworkers of those who have tested positive for COVID-19. Ontario Premier Doug Ford said on Tuesday that mobile-phone apps will play a critical role as the province looks to ramp up testing, while Alberta launched a voluntary Bluetooth-based application called ABTraceTogether earlier this month. New Brunswick is also working to develop such an app.

Canadians appear to be divided on their support of contact-tracing technology. About 54 per cent of Canadians surveyed by global communications firm Edelman between April 15 and 23 said they would be willing to give up more of their health and location data to the government to help contain the spread of the virus.

In letters to the CRTC, Rogers Communications Inc., Telus Corp. and BCE Inc. argued that oversight of contact tracing by the regulator is unnecessary because the country’s federal and provincial privacy commissioners are already involved. “The federal, provincial and territorial privacy commissioners are already fully engaged and have the broad jurisdiction necessary to protect privacy in relation to contact tracing, regardless of the technology used,” Stephen Schmidt, Telus’s chief regulatory legal counsel wrote.

The privacy watchdogs issued joint guidelines earlier this month on how to mitigate the privacy risks associated with contact-tracing apps. Their principles include ensuring that the apps remain voluntary, that information identifying individuals is removed whenever possible and that the data is only used for the intended public health purpose.

However, PIAC’s executive director John Lawford said the CRTC has stronger enforcement powers than the federal privacy commissioner when it comes to the telecommunications industry.

Mr. Lawford added that while the current development of contact-tracing apps might be happening without the involvement of the telecom companies, that’s likely to change. If contact-tracing technology is to be effective, it will likely require the creation of a central database and the use of location data from cell towers or GPS services – factors that increase privacy risks for consumers, Mr. Lawford said.

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“Most countries that have done this in an effective way, like South Korea and China, they have a more central tracking and monitoring approach," Mr. Lawford said.

“If we’re going to do that, we need to have some kind of a public body with authority saying ‘we went through all the liberty and privacy considerations.' "

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