When Public Health and Data Privacy Collide

ChatMail   |   March 1, 2022

When Public Health and Data Privacy Collide

In the ongoing battle for public privacy, there is significant tension between national security and citizens’ privacy rights. Governments have been known to conduct surveillance on the public by various means, stating it is in their best interest. Any number of known dangers to safety may be used to rationalize this scrutiny. While the hazards may be real, many question the ethics of monitoring the masses if only a portion of the populace present a problem.

Critics denounce privacy intrusions by the government as an excuse to snoop on the general population. When monitoring is in response to a serious issue, like the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, citizens still expect to be informed that public information is being gathered.

Collecting People’s Whereabouts Via Data During a Pandemic

The Public Health Agency of Canada admitted it monitored 33 million mobile devices to track the spread of the coronavirus. That’s a million more cellphones than are registered to Canadians. “Due to the urgency of the pandemic, (PHAC) collected and used mobility data, such as cell-tower location data, throughout the COVID-19 response.”

The data was examined to evaluate the effectiveness of public lockdown measures. A spokesperson for the agency said the data helped the agency “understand possible links between movement of populations within Canada and spread of COVID-19.”

PHAC awarded a contract to the Telus Data For Good program—which looked at anonymized, aggregate data of trends—tracking movement of the cell phone devices across the country. PHACs access to the data was set to expiree when the program ended in October 2021.

Not unlike the world’s largest data collectors, who don’t always provide details on their information gathering, it appears PHAC intends to continue tracking this data.

Data Collection Continues

According to the agency, it plans on tracking population movement for the next five years to address public health concerns, like “other infectious diseases, chronic disease prevention and mental health.”

If Canadians had reservations about the government watching their movements at the height of the pandemic, continuing the process into the future is bound to be met with opposition. Arguments can be made in favour of collecting data during an unprecedented international health crisis provided it is conducted with transparency.

Martin French, an associate professor at Concordia University—who specializes in surveillance, privacy, and social justice—notes the ongoing collection raises equity issues. “There are populations that could experience an intensification of tracking that could have harmful (rather than beneficial) repercussions.” French notes, “The pandemic has created opportunities for a massive surveillance surge on many levels—not only for public health, but also for monitoring those working, shopping, and learning from home.” He says the surveillance surge around COVID-19 surpasses the one following 9/11.

Who Will Be Tracked?

If the monitor continues, the working-class, racialized demographics—who were least likely to be able to work remotely—will be disproportionately observed. Prior to the vaccine roll out, it was noted those who were suffering the most from COVID-19 were minorities.

Canada’s public health agency relied on the award-winning program created by Telus to privately gather the de-identified and disaggregated data. It was credited for “helping reduce COVID-19 transmission without compromising the personal privacy of Canadians”.

Canadians who are against the collection of their personal information should consider the possibility of taking cell phone security into their own hands and use a hardened ChatMail device, designed from the ground up for privacy.

Security Beyond Encryption

Privacy begins with an encrypted phone, but it doesn’t end there. ChatMail phones have their own proprietary privacy measures that go beyond what any free communication app offers.

ChatMail is intentionally designed to be incompatible with third-party apps, which can introduce a range of security risks. For example, WhatsApp touts “end-to-end encryption” but it is the target of malware and zero-click exploits.

The company routinely sells user information to marketing companies and hackers can easily intercept messages because they are stored unencrypted on WhatsApp servers.

With ChatMail, messages are stored on your phone where they are encrypted. Only very basic account information is stored on our server, including username, activation, and expiry date.

While the importance of encryption can’t be overstated, ChatMail devices have several other vital safeguards. The self-destructing feature lets users control if you want a message or picture to expire early and it can’t be saved even if the recipient makes it a favourite.

If your phone gets lost or stolen, using the remote wipe feature will ensure your privacy remains intact, no matter how far away you are from your phone. ChatMail phones are inspired by the world’s leading cryptographers. The ChatMail Advanced Messaging and Parsing Protocol is state of the art, encompasses both PGP and Elliptical Curve Cryptography.

Stay connected with your business associates, family and friends without worrying about your device movement data being collected. With ChatMail, you can enjoy true anonymity on your phone.