Ethics committee convenes Duclos and Tam on cellphone data collection during pandemic


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OTTAWA — The House of Commons Ethics Committee is asking the Minister of Health to explain the Public Health Agency of Canada’s collection of data from millions of mobile phones to understand travel habits during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Opposition MPs on the committee are concerned the pandemic could be used to invade the privacy of Canadians who were unaware that a government agency was collecting cellphone data.

At an emergency meeting on Thursday, the committee of MPs passed a motion asking Jean-Yves Duclos and Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, to appear before it to respond to questions about politics.


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The House is still in winter recess, but four opposition MPs on the committee called for an emergency session after the Public Health Agency issued a notice saying it planned to expand the practice of data gathering.

Conservative, Bloc and New Democrat MPs on the committee raised concerns about the privacy implications of the policy.

In December, the Public Health Agency released a new request for proposals to track cell tower location data nationwide between January 1, 2019 and May 31, 2023.

The notice states that data should be accurate, accessible and timely, while ensuring confidentiality and transparency. It should be stripped of all identifying information.

The request for proposals was due to end before MPs return to parliament after their winter recess, but has now been extended until February 4, said Conservative ethics critic and committee member John Brassard. .


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Brassard said the Public Health Agency’s data collection raises many “red flags” about privacy.

Speaking to the committee on Thursday, he said the Public Health Agency had “collected data without the knowledge of Canadians, effectively doing it in secret.”

“We need to know what security measures were in place to protect the privacy rights of Canadians,” he said.

The Public Health Agency said in a statement that it had informed the Privacy Commissioner of the process and had also been advised by its own privacy and ethics experts.

“Minister Duclos has also been in communication with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner and underscored PHAC’s continued commitment to protecting and preserving the privacy of citizens and individuals in Canada while ensuring that that Canada has the data necessary to understand and inform our continued response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the statement read.


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Greg Fergus, Liberal member of the privacy committee, said all committee members agree that it is “important to protect the privacy rights of Canadians.”

But he said the information was aggregated data that had been “de-identified, so there is no information to identify individuals”.

“It is unfair to say that we follow the Canadians. That’s not the case at all,” Fergus told the committee. “When we ask for de-identified data that doesn’t identify a person, it’s just data.”

The Public Health Agency said that “by analyzing population movement data, we can better understand public responsiveness to public health guidance”.

He said that in December 2020 he established a “sole-source contract” with a telecom operator which expired in October 2021.


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“PHAC is now launching a request for proposals process to continue collecting this data through an open and transparent process,” it said in a statement.

Brassard wrote to Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien last week asking him to investigate the matter.

In a statement, the commissioner’s office said it had not opened a formal investigation. But he said that after receiving complaints alleging privacy breaches, he would “turn our attention to the means chosen to anonymize data mobility information”.

In 2020, the commissioner’s office released a document on privacy and initiatives in response to COVID-19 that warned institutions to be aware of the risk of re-identifying anonymized information.

The government has not asked the commissioner for specific advice on the existence of “adequate safeguards against re-identification”, he said.

“The government has relied on other experts for this purpose, which is its prerogative,” the commissioner’s office said.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on January 13, 2022.



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