Subscriber Survey

The Canadian government should use anonymized location data to fight COVID-19, subscribers say

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The Canadian government should use anonymized data to help control the spread of COVID-19, The Logic subscribers say. 

Three-quarters of all subscribers who responded to our most recent survey agreed with the premise. Of those, 43 per cent strongly agreed and 32 per cent somewhat agreed. The survey was conducted between March 31 and April 2.

“There is no reason to not use whatever tools are at the government’s disposal to mitigate this unprecedented crisis,” one subscriber wrote.

Methodology

The Logic’s subscribers were emailed a private link to an online survey on Tuesday, March 31, and the survey closed Thursday, April 2. Respondents’ identities were kept anonymous and duplicates were removed as needed. Subscribers were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement “The Canadian government should harness anonymized data to help fight the pandemic.” Their choices were: strongly disagree, somewhat disagree, neither disagree nor agree, somewhat agree, strongly agree. Secondly, they were asked, “How optimistic or pessimistic are you feeling about the Canadian economy’s ability to recover from the pandemic?” They were given the choices: very optimistic, somewhat optimistic, neither optimistic nor pessimistic, somewhat pessimistic, very pessimistic, I don’t know. Thirdly, they were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement “COVID-19 will lead to a prolonged, structural reorganization of the global economy.” Their choices were: strongly disagree, somewhat disagree, neither disagree nor agree, somewhat agree, strongly agree. Finally, they were asked, “Is your company making or anticipating structural changes related to COVID-19?” They were given the choices: yes, no, I don’t know.

“This [is] an emergency. Survival outweighs the right to privacy,” wrote another.

Last week, Toronto Mayor John Tory told attendees of an online event that the city was collecting anonymized cellphone location data to track where people were continuing to gather despite social-distancing measures. Although Tory later retracted the remark, it sparked a debate about whether Canadian governments should use cellphone data to fight the pandemic.

“As far as I know, that is not a situation we’re looking at right now,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last week. “But as I’ve said, all options are on the table to do what is necessary to keep Canadians safe in these exceptional times.”

The U.S. and several European countries are already starting to use mobile data to monitor and enforce social distancing. Other countries including South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Israel are using cellphone data to digitally trace the contacts people who test positive for COVID-19 have made, and to notify those who may be at risk. Several Canadian cities, provinces and the federal government are talking to researchers about similar tracking apps.

The majority of respondents to The Logic’s subscriber survey were in favour of harnessing location data, despite the privacy issues doing so may pose.

“We should use all tools available to us to help contain the outbreak. This can be done while still protecting [individual] privacy,” one subscriber wrote.

“Science across disciplines is built on anonymized data. It would stand to reason that it would have a part to play in how we cope with the crisis,” another said.

Many respondents noted that their answer hinged on the data being anonymous.

“Anonymized? Absolutely. We need to combat [COVID-19] and the best available science says the two things people can do are practice physical distancing and wash their hands. Data can and should help with the former. But only anonymized — privacy should be respected as much as possible in these times,” one subscriber wrote.

“They shouldn’t be allowed to surveil individuals without an opt-in,” another said.

One pointed out that it is “very easy to [de-anonymize]” data. Indeed, studies suggest that individuals can be extracted from anonymized datasets with a high level of efficacy. 

Still, one subscriber argued the extraordinary circumstances justify extraordinary measures. “I think the danger warrants some intrusion on privacy,” they said.

Several subscribers pointed out that private cellphone and advertising companies already use personal data for profit.

“The data is already being generated and collected for marketing purposes. This is a better reason for using it,” one subscriber said. 

Some subscribers were concerned that governments would be more likely to make use of the data for other purposes after the pandemic. 

“I’m worried it’s a slippery slope,” one wrote.

Another subscriber brought up the example of income tax, which was introduced as a temporary measure in 1917 to help finance the war.

A few subscribers who opposed the government using data said it wasn’t necessary right now. One respondent suggested taking the measure “if by the end of this week we don’t see a flattening of the curve.”

The Logic also asked subscribers about the post-pandemic outlook for the Canadian economy, a subject on which they were divided. Fifty-five per cent said they were optimistic about the prospect of economic recovery; 29 per cent said they were pessimistic; and 16 per cent were neither optimistic nor pessimistic. 

“I am confident we will recover, it’s a question of time,” one subscriber wrote.

“It will recover, but the question is how quickly and how much damage will be inflicted in the meantime,” wrote another. “We cannot have an economic recovery without first having a health recovery.”

Several subscribers predicted positive change on the horizon after the pandemic recedes, and seemed to welcome a shakeup. Some suggested Canada should take this opportunity to transition to a low-carbon economy, adapt to climate-change needs and “put into place better social supports.” 

“Never let a good crisis go to waste,” one subscriber put it. “Canada has solid skills and infrastructure to repurpose. Now is the time to change.”

One subscriber who works with young entrepreneurs said they’re seeing a lot of “opportunity sensing.” Others who were optimistic about economic recovery wrote that “ingenuity abounds” and suggested “[embracing] the creativity of entrepreneurship.”

While some subscribers felt positive about the federal government’s stimulus measures and the impacts they could have on the economy, others brought up the impact of rising provincial and federal debt in years to come.

“Stimulus is great, but could plunge us into massive, massive debt. It’s hard to come back from that without severe austerity measures, which could impact our entire quality of life,” one subscriber wrote.

Some of the respondents who were pessimistic about the economy’s outlook cautioned that COVID-19 and the accompanying economic crisis will be with us for years and that recovery will take “longer than we think.”

One subscriber laid out a bleak vision for what the economy might look like on the other side.

“Thousands of independent businesses will go under; the big corporations, like the banks, will survive, and Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Netflix will grow and prosper, without any benefit to Canada,” they wrote.

Several subscribers pointed out that recovery might not be distributed evenly across regions and sectors. Energy and oil sectors may be especially hard hit, which could harshly impact Western Canada.

For one subscriber, recovery is conditional. “My optimism about the economy is tied to my belief that the virus can be cured. Anything is possible once that is done,” they wrote.

For the second time since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March, The Logic asked subscribers whether they believe the virus will lead to a prolonged, structural reorganization of the global economy. A larger percentage of respondents agreed with that premise this week, compared to a previous survey conducted between March 13 and 16.

This week, 76 per cent of respondents agreed that COVID-19 will profoundly alter the global economy, a six percentage-point increase over the last time. The percentage of subscribers who strongly agreed jumped from 20 per cent to 26 per cent, accounting for most of the difference, while the percentage of subscribers who somewhat agreed remained relatively stable, at around 50 per cent.

Like last time, many subscribers predicted that global supply chains will be reorganized as a result of the pandemic. The idea that the crisis will “accelerate changes already underway,” like a rise in virtual work, was also widely shared. Subscribers expected a reduction in business travel and an increased interest in shopping “local” were here to stay.

Several respondents took a long view. Although they anticipate change, one subscriber doesn’t expect it to be visible immediately. “Even the impact of WWII didn’t fully realize for decades,” they wrote.

Others still aren’t convinced that any changes will be long lasting. “History shows us how [quickly] we forget,” one wrote.

Finally, The Logic asked subscribers whether their companies were making or anticipating making structural changes due to COVID-19. Despite historic unemployment numbers coming out of the U.S. this week and mounting layoffs and furloughs in Canada, a smaller percentage of respondents reported structural changes at their companies this week compared with the previous survey.

When we surveyed subscribers between March 13 and 16, nearly 70 per cent indicated there would be changes at their work. This week, that number was down to 50 per cent. Twenty-five per cent of respondents indicated they weren’t sure whether changes would be made, up from 14 per cent the last time we asked the question.

Several subscribers mentioned layoffs and reduced pay at their respective companies. Many subscribers said they’d seen a shift toward remote work and have reorganized operations to adapt to new social and economic norms.

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