Canada’s health agency, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), is facing criticism for withholding extensive cellphone tracking data under the Access to Information Act. The agency cited “commercial confidentiality” as the reason for not disclosing weekly reports derived from cellphone towers across the country during the pandemic.
According to reports by Blacklocks, the PHAC used anonymized, population-aggregated, near-real-time mobile device location data to estimate changes in population mobility patterns. They claimed that the data only contained a unique device ID and did not reveal any personal information about the users.
However, unredacted information showed that the agency tracked travel to elementary schools, airports, work, and the most common day home locations. They also monitored trends in time spent away from home, indoor gatherings, and travel to airports.
This cellphone tracking initiative, which was carried out to stop the spread of COVID-19, raised concerns about the invasion of privacy. The data was obtained without the knowledge or consent of cellphone users. The program was in operation from April 2020 to February 2022, at which point Members of Parliament voted to cease the intrusive surveillance.
Conservative MP John Brassard expressed concerns about the government’s overreach, while New Democrat MP Matthew Green emphasized the ethical issues surrounding the program. Many Canadians first learned about the program through news articles, leading to further alarm.
Rebel News initially broke the story, revealing a tender proposal by the PHAC listed on Public Services and Procurement Canada. The agency paid Telus nearly $200,000 to access users’ de-identified data dating back to January 2019.
In response to the privacy concerns raised, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC) launched an investigation and recommended reforms to privacy laws. The OPC called for transparency and accountability when dealing with third parties and handling de-identified data.
The OPC also noted that other countries, including Africa, Brazil, and Mexico, have used similar mobility data for disease outbreaks such as Ebola, Zika, and swine flu. However, the OPC emphasized the importance of maintaining privacy standards and upholding the rights of individuals.
The PHAC’s use of cellphone tracking data highlights the growing need for clear regulations and safeguards to protect individuals’ privacy. As technology advances, it is crucial to strike a balance between public health measures and respecting personal privacy rights.
In conclusion, the Public Health Agency of Canada’s withholding of cellphone tracking data has sparked criticism and raised concerns about privacy infringement. The agency’s use of mobile device location data to track population mobility patterns during the pandemic has ignited a debate about the extent of government surveillance and the protection of individual privacy rights. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada has recommended reforms to privacy laws, emphasizing the need for transparency and accountability. As the world grapples with the challenges of disease outbreaks, it is essential to navigate the delicate balance between public health measures and protecting individuals’ privacy.