Privacy in a pandemic: What should the NWT be telling you?

Elaine Keenan Bengts appears before a committee at the NWT legislature on January 15, 2019
Elaine Keenan Bengts appears before a committee at the NWT legislature on January 15, 2019.

The NWT’s privacy commissioner is weighing in on what the territory’s chief public health officer chooses to make public during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Commissioner Elaine Keenan Bengts told Cabin Radio the impacts to privacy have been fairly limited in the NWT so far. By comparison, some jurisdictions outside Canada have stretched as far as using digital tracking devices to monitor people.

Yet Keenan Bengts identified at least one instance where she felt information released in the NWT was “cringeworthy but perhaps needed in the circumstance.”

That instance was the decision of Dr Kami Kandola, the chief public health officer, to name and shame a resident who publicly ignored the territory’s newly ordered travel restrictions. 



“I’m kind-of in two minds on it,” she said. “I’m not sure that was an appropriate thing to do on the one hand. On the other hand, I understand why it was done.”

Last week, Kandola publicly excoriated Mike Harrison, who had earlier publicly identified himself in telling NNSL he would flout the order to self-isolate in a large community.

Harrison was angry at being denied entry to the NWT at the British Columbia border. Instead he drove past Hay River and ignored an order to isolate there, heading on to his cabin in Lindberg Landing, between Fort Simpson and Fort Liard.

“He chose to prioritize his own personal comfort over the safety of our territory. And he chose to go on to embolden others to ignore our medical direction by touting his act in the media,” Kandola said in a news release focused entirely on Harrison’s conduct.



She added that if Harrison became ill, it could put an “unnecessary strain” on the territory’s medical system. He remains under investigation and could face a $10,000 fine and six months’ imprisonment.

Generally, Keenan Bengts said the territory’s public health officials “seem to have things well under control.”

She said she posted a document on privacy during a pandemic to make sure the public knows that while privacy laws aren’t impeding public health officials’ work, the disclosure of personal information “should be limited to what’s needed and reasonable.” 

To name or not to name

There are currently two confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the territory, one in Yellowknife and one in Inuvik. Kandola has said if a positive case is identified in a smaller community, the name of that community will not be made public to protect privacy. 

“There are good reasons for not saying the specific community, there are also good reasons for stating the specific community,” Keenan Bengts said. “So it’s going to be up to the chief public health officer to make that determination at the time.”

When the first confirmed case of Covid-19 was announced on March 21, some people called on the government to release more details, including information about flights the person had taken. 

Keenan Bengts, however, said public health officials know how to gather information and get in touch with those who have been in contact with infected individuals. If there were more positive cases or people who tested positive hadn’t immediately self-isolated, she said, it might be a different story. 

“I don’t think the general public has to worry too much about it,” said the privacy commissioner.



Keenan Bengts said there is little stopping people who know information about those that have tested positive from sharing it. Individuals are not subject to privacy laws but can be sued for libel or charged with harassment. 

“It’s a matter of respect for our fellow human beings in this difficult time,” she said.

“It seems to me that at this point in time we should trust [public health officials] to continue to do their job, and not be posting things on social media which can be devastating to people.”