Opposition MPs call for emergency probe of health agency's use of Canadians' mobile data during COVID – National Post

Science & Technology

It is ‘extremely alarming’ that a government body would use the pandemic as an excuse to secretly collect the mobile data of Canadians without telling them, a Conservative MP said
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OTTAWA — All three main opposition parties are calling for a review of the Public Health Agency of Canada’s plan to continue using anonymized cellphone location data of Canadians to track travel patterns during the pandemic.
Conservative MPs called PHAC’s actions “extremely alarming,” and asked for an emergency meeting of the House of Commons ethics committee, a request supported by the Bloc Québécois.
NDP ethics critic Matthew Green said it was an “intrusion on the privacy of Canadians, who deserve to know what kind of information the government” is and plans on collecting.
The Public Health Agency is seeking to extend its use of the de-identified, anonymized data. It posted a request for proposals in December, asking for a contract for a third party to “provide access to cell-tower/operator location data to assist in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and for other public health applications.” The contractor would provide “de-identified cell-tower based location data from January 1, 2019.” The contract ends on 2023, with the option to renew for another three years.
The first contract to track the data expired in the fall.
There are no legal restrictions on companies handing over such data to government, as long as it’s anonymized. Authorities need a warrant to track an individual’s location, but companies are free to provide de-identified, anonymized data showing, for instance, how many Canadians travelled during a lockdown.
PHAC said in a statement it has “used de-identified (without personal identifiers) and aggregated data to inform the Government of Canada’s response to COVID-19.” While PHAC said it has “consulted with privacy and ethics experts, including the Office of the Privacy Commissioner” at “every step,” the federal privacy commissioner’s office said it was only informed, not consulted, about the program.
“We have regular meetings with Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada on various COVID initiatives. As part of these conversations, we were informed of this particular initiative in 2020. At times, PHAC and Health Canada seek our advice, at other times they do not. In this case, they did not seek our advice on this initiative,” spokesperson Vito Pilieci said.
The Privacy Commissioner has now received “several complaints” about the program and is looking at next steps, he said.
PHAC obtained at least some of its data through Telus’ Data for Good program, which was launched in the spring of 2020 in response to the emergence of the COVID-19 virus. The program, which won a privacy award from the International Association of Privacy Professionals, provides de-identified, aggregated data to governments, health authorities and researchers. Under that program, PHAC or any government agency wouldn’t have had access to personally identifiable data on Canadians.
PHAC didn’t respond by deadline when asked whether the data it used was entirely through the Telus program.
PHAC is not the only government agency to tap into Telus’ data. At launch, the telecom company said in a press release it would provide data to the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). On its website it promotes testimonials on the Data for Good program from the City of Surrey and Ottawa Public Health.
The company didn’t answer by deadline when asked how many governments at the municipal, provincial or federal level it has contracts with.
Conservative ethics critic John Brassard said at a press conference Monday there is “no ability for parliamentary scrutiny to determine what this information has been used for, what outcomes the agency and by extension the government, is hoping to achieve to mitigate the damage being done by COVID in our communities, and what protections are in place to ensure that the privacy of Canadians has been and will be protected under this program.”
Bloc MP René Villemure, who signed the letter to the House ethics committee asking for an emergency meeting, said there’s not enough information to determine whether PHAC was right to obtain the information in the way it did.
“We have enough doubts that we can ask questions,” he said in an interview. One of the issues is that PHAC was using the data “without telling anybody,” Villemure said.
He said the health agency’s request for proposals, which is scheduled to close on Jan. 21, should be put on hold “so that we can learn more about it. And this is what we’re going to do with the committee.”
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