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Another threat from COVID – increased surveillance and loss of privacy

The report identifies the risk of so-called “information biases,” which occurs when companies and governments accumulate large amounts of personal information without the knowledge or consent of private individuals.

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Loss of taste and smell are well-known symptoms associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

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And you can add one more, surveillance and “big data” experts say — loss of privacy.

How personal data has been used – and misused – by Canadians during the pandemic is the subject of a report by David Lyon of Queen’s University’s Surveillance Study Centre, presented at a conference on “Big Data” at the University of Ottawa on Wednesday. The rush to collect data during the pandemic is different than it has been since the September 11 terrorist attacks, writes Lyon.

Advancements like StingRay cell phone trackers, facial recognition technology, and powerful machine learning programs give police more tools than ever before to collect personally identifiable information.

The report identifies the risk of so-called “information biases,” which occur when companies and governments accumulate large amounts of personal information without the knowledge or consent of private individuals.

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For several months, Ontario police forces accessed data collected for epidemiological purposes, Lyon’s report said, conducting “thousands of unauthorized searches” through a first responder portal.

The pandemic has also exposed society’s vulnerability to misinformation, said Charlie Angus, NDP MP for Timmins-James Bay, who was attending a panel alongside civil rights advocates.

“What I’ve seen post-pandemic is that things are seriously broken,” Angus said. “People are broken. Our conversations are interrupted. And it’s a serious threat to us as Canadians,” Angus said. “And it’s about data, privacy and finding that balance between the rights to privacy in the age of surveillance and the rights of democracy.”

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Algorithms and machine learning have gradually manipulated opinions and behavior, he said.

“For the last two years we have been living our lives online. And we’re starting to replicate our behavior based on how the machines behave,” he warned.

Angus described how his Facebook feed was flooded with disinformation posts from fake websites during the Ottawa occupation. The disinformation doesn’t just come from malicious “data mercenaries,” he said.

“It was created by our neighbors, our nieces and our colleagues who immersed themselves in this alternate world that was fed to them by the algorithm,” Angus said. “What we saw during the occupation was a radicalization of people that I never thought possible.”

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Also, not all people are equally vulnerable to surveillance. Certain exposed groups such as Black, Indigenous, Black and the poor or homeless were more likely to be targeted by police and have their personal information collected and stored.

Meghan McDermott, political director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, described the intense surveillance of Indigenous protesters at the Trans Mountain Pipeline in northern BC. Silent men in unmarked vehicles mounted 24-hour video surveillance against the protesters, surveillance cameras were mounted on trees in the surrounding forest and mysterious “robot surveillance towers” with cameras, searchlights, speakers and sensors were installed on the crown’s land, she said.

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McDermott and the BCCLA were never able to find out who was conducting the surveillance or why it was being conducted.

“We tried our best to find out who these people were and what they were doing with the information we gathered. We were handicapped,” she said.

The surveillance shows how certain groups, such as Indigenous protesters and land defenders, can be identified and labeled as “potential threats,” she said, “who don’t even deserve a conversation with state agents.”

Combating such abuses requires stricter laws that can keep up with rapidly evolving technology, Lyon said. And people need to be aware of the increasing threats to their privacy.

“Big data touches everyone in Canada’s diverse society,” he said. “Raising awareness of what’s happening and how it affects everyday decisions and opportunities is crucial.”

The Beyond Big Data Surveillance conference continues Thursday at the University of Ottawa.

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