Canada: Privacy Commissioner Targets IoT Health Devices In Sweep

What rumours is your fitness tracker spreading about you? In its latest Internet of Things themed sweep, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada reviews what personal information is being collected about Canadians by “smart” health and fitness devices.

Many of us will remember Time Magazine's audaciously titled September 2013 issue, which splashed the following headline across its cover page: "Can Google Solve Death?"

At the time, there were more than a few skeptics who might have dismissed Google's investment in Calico, a biotech subsidiary, as another moonshot investment by the tech giant or as part of a long-term expansion strategy.

Fast-forward less than three years. Regulators continue to play catch-up with the burgeoning industry at the intersection of data analytics and user-generated personal health data. The ballooning number of connected devices that make up the so-called internet of things ("IoT") has accelerated in scale at a heart-clutching rate. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada ("OPC") quoting estimates that, by 2020, there will be between 20 and 30 billion connected devices.1 While devices that generate data specific to the function and use of the human body represent a subset of these devices, it is hard to deny the growth in the sophistication and potential use (and misuse) of the datasets generated from users' health and biometric data.

Connected health technology has come a long way since the days of telephonic medical alert systems infamously portrayed in infomercials featuring "help, I've fallen" pushbutton necklaces. While application driven smart-phones, watches and fitness wearables are top of mind, the healthcare industry has adopted a range of smart devices that quietly gather and amass a steady stream of data about their users: baby monitors, respiratory and glucose meters, scales, pillboxes, thermometers, contact lenses, heart-monitors, and even band-aids are but a few of the previously inert devices that have become IoT-enabled. For individual consumers, health practitioners, and public health officials, there are extremely compelling use cases to prevent regulatory authorities from stifling the innovation in this sector. For individual patients and clinicians, the devices open what was previously a black-box allowing insight into the lives of individuals outside a clinical setting. The data gathered will enable the healthcare industry to open new service lines focusing on early detection and intervention as well as ongoing health monitoring. Similarly, public health authorities can benefit from large-N data-mining that could potentially offer new insights into determinants of disease, healthy aging processes, and general population wellness.

However, without adequate regulation the (mis)use cases for health data are equally compelling. Digital archives of health data represent new targets for data-breaches and fraud. While the OPC singles out harm to dignity and the integrity of the human body as coordinate reasons for the special protection it affords to leaks/exposures of health data, it has also identified two particular concerns that arise from the proliferation of health data: threats to individual users' future insurability and employability.2

IoT Health Devices Raise Multiple Concerns

The cross-border fluidity of data, the proliferation of health data start-ups, the lack of consumer awareness, and the dangers of misuse of health data have not gone unnoticed by the OPC. Last week, the OPC announced that as part of the Global Privacy Enforcement Network ("GPEN") review of IoT devices, the focus of the OPC's 2016 "sweep" would be health devices.

In order to build a clearer picture of the practises of Canadian businesses the OPC declared that between April 11th and 15th, 2016 it would be testing products, examining privacy information published on businesses' websites, and directly petitioning businesses for responses to specific privacy-related questions.

As in previous years, the 2016 sweep is part of a coordinated effort by the OPC as a member of GPEN to increase public and business awareness of privacy rights and responsibilities, encourage compliance with privacy legislation, identify concerns that may be addressed through targeted education or enforcement, and enhance cooperation among privacy enforcement authorities.3 GPEN is an OECD organization composed of local data protection authorities of certain participating member states. Though members of GPEN do not rule out either further follow-up with, or enforcement action against noncompliant businesses, the OPC has stated that it does not consider the sweep an investigation, nor does it conclusively identify compliance issues or possible violations of privacy legislation through a sweep alone.4

Those readers who have been monitoring communication from the OPC will not be surprised by the focus of the sweep. In its June 2015 report, "The OPC Strategic Privacy Priorities 2015-2020", the OPC identified "The body as information" as one of its four main priority areas and pledged to both "conduct an environmental scan of new health applications and digital health technologies being offered on the market and research their privacy implications".5 The OPC has stated that it believes the human body to be the "vessel of our most intimate personal information", and, as such, will strive to promote respect for its privacy and integrity. In its strategic plan the OPC drew particular attention to biometric data associated with wearables as well as data gathered from direct-to-consumer genetic testing products and services.

Misuse of Health Information

Legislative activity reflects the increasing concern over the use and misuse of health information. Bill S-201, as adopted by the Canadian Senate on April 14th, is expected to provide a measure of much-needed protection against discrimination on the basis of genetic characteristics. In addition to amending the Canadian Labour Code, the Canadian Human Rights Act, the Privacy Act, and the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act ("PIPEDA") to protect against genetic discrimination, the bill introduces a Genetic Non-Discrimination Act, which makes it an offence for a service provider to collect or use the results of a genetic test of an individual without that individual's written consent.

However, even in countries where genetic discrimination protections are already enshrined in law, insurance firms continue to intensify investment in IoT analytics. For instance, as regards health-related services, between 2014 and 2015, there has been an acceleration in the use of data from health and fitness monitors by insurance companies with the percentage of firms having launched or piloted health and fitness IoT-connected insurance initiatives rising from 10% in 2014 to 39% by 2015.6

Businesses engaged in either the collection or use of such information should be aware that the results of the sweep will, in the medium term, likely be incorporated in new OPC guidance that will identify standards for privacy protection in products and services as well as new "no-go" zones for data collection.7 The OPC has identified several horizontal, cross-cutting strategic concerns which it has stated it will apply to IoT devices and services:

  1. Exploring innovative and technological ways of protecting privacy;
  2. Strengthening accountability and promoting good privacy governance;
  3. Protecting Canadians' privacy in a borderless world;
  4. Enhancing the OPC's public education role; and
  5. Enhancing privacy protection for vulnerable groups.

As regulators continue to fine-tune their approach through information gathered in exercises like the 2016 sweep, businesses that gather, trade-in, or use health data should be monitoring both changes in the regulatory landscape as well as the wider technological environment. For instance, today's means of de-identifying health data by scrubbing personally identifying information or pseudo-anonymizing individual users through the use of standard cryptographic methods like a hash may not be enough to protect the sensitive data that is at the heart of the OPC's interest in the "body as information".

Businesses cannot think of the information that they gather and warehouse as having a 'static' risk profile. Over time, as use cases for health data and the analytical tools available to businesses become increasingly mature, we expect to see a commensurate growth in the capability of third parties (or poorly governed business units) to 'link' today's privacy compliant data with offline and online datasets to recreate an identifiable profile of a de-identified or pseudo-anonymous person.

In the more mature retail environment, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was recently able to use de-identified credit card purchase information from a 1.1 million person dataset to match 90% of the cases to specific publicly available information on social media sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare.8

Similarly, businesses should continue to appraise on an ongoing basis both the validity of end-user consents and the capability of users to access and correct health data as new use cases for the data are piloted.


1 Canada, Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, The Internet of Things: An introduction to privacy issues with a focus on the retail and home environments, (February 2016) online:

2 Canada, Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, The OPC Strategic Privacy Priorities 2015-2020: Mapping a course for greater protection, (June 2015) online:

3 Canada, Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, Canada examines health devices during 2016 "Internet of Things" global privacy sweep, (Gatineau, Quebec: April 11, 2016) online:

4 Canada, Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, Results of the 2015 Global Privacy Enforcement Network Sweep, (Gatineau, Quebec: September 2, 2015) online:

5 The OPC Strategic Privacy Priorities 2015-2020, supra note 2.

6 Accenture, "Digital Insurance: Reimagining Insurance Distribution" (2015), online:

7 Ibid.

8 The Internet of Things: An introduction to privacy issues with a focus on the retail and home environments, supra note 1.

To view original article, please click here.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

In association with
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:
  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.
  • Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.
    If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here
    If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq you may opt out by clicking here

    Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

    Use of

    You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


    Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

    The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


    Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

    • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
    • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
    • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

    Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

    Information Collection and Use

    We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

    We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

    Mondaq News Alerts

    In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


    A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

    Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

    Log Files

    We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


    This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

    Surveys & Contests

    From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


    If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


    From time to time Mondaq may send you emails promoting Mondaq services including new services. You may opt out of receiving such emails by clicking below.

    *** If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of services offered by Mondaq you may opt out by clicking here .


    This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to

    Correcting/Updating Personal Information

    If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to

    Notification of Changes

    If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

    How to contact Mondaq

    You can contact us with comments or queries at

    If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.

    By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions