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Coronavirus information
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Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien speaks during a news conference in Ottawa, on Dec. 10, 2019.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Governments that want to use smartphones to trace the movements of Canadians during the COVID-19 crisis should handle personal information with care, privacy watchdogs from across the country warned Thursday in a united call for caution.

Privacy commissioners have been warning of potential risks associated with government COVID-19 apps since provinces started musing about the idea a few weeks ago.

The apps work by keeping a record of when one phone gets close to another, and then alerting users if they’ve come into contact with someone who has a confirmed or presumed case.

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Alberta introduced its ABTraceTogether app last week, and New Brunswick, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador are looking at developing their own.

“The choices that our governments make today about how to achieve both public health protection and respect for our fundamental Canadian values, including the right to privacy, will shape the future of our country,” the federal, provincial and territorial privacy commissioners wrote in a joint statement Thursday.

Federal privacy czar Daniel Therrien said the health crisis calls for some flexibility when it comes to the application of privacy laws, but there is a way to use technology to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus without sacrificing fundamental rights to privacy.

“Everything hinges on design, and appropriate design depends on respect for certain key privacy principles,” Therrien said in a statement Thursday.

Therrien and the other commissioners said that while app developers need to respect Canada’s privacy laws, those laws aren’t always effective in the digital world.

They released a set of guidelines for provinces, urging them to be transparent and accountable about how their apps work and what is being done with users’ personal information.

The commissioners stressed participation should be voluntary and users should provide clear consent to whatever they’re signing up for.

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The apps should also be secure to safeguard personal data, which should be destroyed once the crisis is over, they said.

Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said her team is keeping an eye on the apps in development across the country to see if one could be adopted at the national level, but privacy will be the main concern.

“I think if there are certain tools that are better than others, that’s the kind of knowledge that you want to share,” Tam said at a briefing Wednesday. “Not just whether the application works, but all of the policies that go with it, like privacy, which I think is the most paramount of some of the policy discussions.”

The Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta is already reviewing the app deployed in Alberta, and will be issuing recommendations to the provincial government.

Historian Niall Ferguson compares COVID-19 to past global sicknesses, likening it to a flu pandemic that hit in the 1950s. He also says the coronavirus will accelerate the emergence of a new Cold War between China and the U.S. Mr. Ferguson was in conversation with Rudyard Griffiths from the Munk Debates. The Globe and Mail

Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.

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