How to protect your digital privacy while the Canadian government is ramping up tracking

Editor's Note

This article is sponsored by Surfshark.

In times of public emergencies, say a global pandemic like the coronavirus, the Canadian government could harness telecommunication tracking tools in a number of creative ways and in the name of public safety.

For example, recently Toronto Mayor John Tory set off a few alarms among privacy advocates. He boasted, “We had … the cell phone companies give us all the data on the pinging off their network on the weekend so we could see, ‘Where were people still congregating?’”

Later, Tory walked back that claim saying “it was an idea he had raised casually but not implemented.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tried to dampen the controversy when he said, ‘“We recognize that in an emergency situation we need to take certain steps that wouldn’t be taken in non-emergency situations. As far as I know, that is not a situation we are looking at right now.”

The City of Toronto likewise weighed in with assurances that it will not be looking at phone location data to pinpoint people who are not practicing physical distancing. Local telecom companies verified that they had not provided user data to the government.

In Ottawa, Dr. Vera Etches, the city’s medical officer of health, tried to calm speculation. No, there were no immediate plans for tapping into cell phone use in the battle against the coronavirus pandemic. However, she refused to discount the possibility: “We’re interested in all options so we’re looking at what exists.”

Canada won’t go “Big Brother”

No one expects Canadians will ever be under the thumb of an Orwellian Big Brother surveillance network. It’s not the Canadian way and Canada has the checks and balances of its courts to curb power abuses. On the other hand, the tools are there and the government could use them.

In the digital age Canadians inevitably trade personal privacy for the freedom of navigating cyberspace on personal computers and smartphones. In fact, the population of GPS trackable smartphones in Canada in 2019 was 26.6 million, just 10 million fewer than the country’s total population.

Connect with a cell phone tower and you are voluntarily sending a tracking marker and disclosing your whereabouts to your cell phone service provider, who can in turn give it to the government. Log on to a laptop and you are contributing to your ISP’s treasure trove of marketing information – where you shop, what you buy and whose political philosophy you support.

But just in case...

What exists is a vast treasure trove of user data that the government can track anyone with a cell phone. Since Canadian officials aren’t taking that possibility off the table, savvy Canadians should seriously consider loading this secure Canada VPN onto their smartphones and their personal computers.

Government intrusion in the name of public safety can be a slippery slope. For example, British Columbia published a new ministerial order enabling a broader use of communications tools for emergency workers responding to the COVID-19 state of emergency.

Overseas, other countries whose citizens have fewer privacy protections are taking stern measures using personal tracking. Here are some examples:

  • Poland has released an app requiring citizens in quarantine to periodically send selfies to prove they are following doctors’ orders. The app will send an alert requiring a geo-located photo. Failure to respond could subject the person to a fine.
  • South Korea has a government-mandated GPS-tracking app which monitors and punishes anyone who breaks quarantine. The government knows about every confirmed patient, including their whereabouts, leisure activities and shopping details.
  • In the U.K. health officials are looking at using location-tracking technology for contact tracking. The plan involves using an app that tracks GPS locations of phone users. If the person begins feeling ill and is later tested positive for the coronavirus, everyone they have had close contact with will get a text message.
  • Singapore has launched a smartphone app that traces people who have been exposed to infected coronavirus patients. The app relies on Bluetooth signals to trace anyone who has been within two metres of the infected individuals. Singapore health ministry officials then contact users, who must send their contact records for further medical tracking and testing.

Quarantine and social distancing are the keys...

Seeking a balance between public safety and personal privacy will be an ongoing challenge for Canada well beyond the coronavirus pandemic. In the meantime, no one can say whether cell phone tracking is as effective as voluntary quarantine or social distancing.

What is needed is an effective vaccine and cure. If the government starts collecting and using GPS data on its citizens, will they eventually put it to uses that will infringe on citizens’ privacy? When the pandemic is finished, can they avoid the temptation to use it for whatever reasons they see fit?

Witness this statement by Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu: “All means will be used to fight the spread of the coronavirus that until today I have refrained from using among the civilian population.” Those means can only be measures at the disposal of governments that are not transparent and could evolve into personally invasive government surveillance.

Why Canadians need a VPN

In the meantime, with Canadian government tracking inevitably ramping up, think about how a VPN protects online privacy. For anyone who has never heard the term “VPN,” it stands for virtual private network. We recommend reading this VPN guide as a starting point in beefing up individual privacy and safety online. Also, there is a new Android VPN feature offered by Surfshark that will disguise the user’s GPS location.

Finally, as more Canadians work from home patiently awaiting a cure or resolution, a VPN becomes even a more important tool in online safety. Cybersecurity awareness in a home working environment is a different mindset altogether from work. Facts bearing on the problem include:

  • Cyber crooks realize that people working from home can be a weak link and backdoor access to a company’s network.
  • Personal devices (laptops, etc.) may not be properly configured with safeguards and firewalls.
  • At-home workers may be employing unsecured Wi-Fi routers.

A premium VPN service like Surfshark offers an additional level of protection against surveillance and hackers because:

  • A VPN provides a secure, encrypted connection. It hides the user’s web activity from their internet provider
  • The VPN offers the best-connections with top-of-the-line 256-bit encryption
  • A VPN like Surfshark employs a strict “no-logs” policy where the user’s activities are never tracked online
  • A premium VPN is free from data leakage. It offers an emergency exit through a “kill switch” if the user’s VPN connection fails.
  • A VPN bypasses geo-blocking. For example, users can log on to overseas Netflix services, which routinely block free VPN proxies.
  • A premium VPN like Surfshark comes with attractive extras features like CleanWeb™, which blocks ads, trackers, malware and phishing attempts.

“Free” VPNs come with a cost

So-called “free” VPNs track the user’s online activity. Those free services need the revenue that accrues from selling all that user data to third-party marketers. It can also slow down the user’s internet connection. Users on the free side take a back seat to paying customers in bandwidth. Those users will see adware and annoying ad popups with resulting junk email as their activity is tracked online.

Summary and conclusion

Canada is ramping up its surveillance resources to contain the spread of coronavirus. While tracking cell phones may not be in the immediate future, no one at the provincial and federal level has ruled it out. Other countries have taken big steps and are tracking their citizens closely.

Canadians who value their privacy should consider installing a VPN on their smartphones and home computers. Surfshark, a popular VPN provider, has developed a new Android VPN feature that will block GPS location tracking.

Also, home workers should employ a no-logs VPN to ensure a private, encrypted on-line connection between them and the websites they visit. The best choice is a paid subscription VPN like Surfshark, which provides secure 256-bit encryption with no activity tracking or ads.