A contract awarded to Advanis by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) has come under scrutiny for its surveillance project that involved collecting cell phone location data from approximately 30 million Canadians to monitor COVID-19 compliance. The contract, part of a two-survey project, aimed to understand the socioeconomic, cognitive, and motivational factors associated with low vaccine uptake in vulnerable populations.
The primary objective of the surveillance project was to establish a surveillance tool that would provide valuable insights into COVID-19 coverage-related information in select vulnerable and hard-to-reach populations. The information collected focused on various aspects, including the COVID-19 immunization status, intent to get vaccinated for those who had not yet received the vaccine, reasons for non-vaccination (including barriers), knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs toward COVID-19 vaccines, sources of information on COVID-19 vaccines accessed by respondents, and inequalities in vaccination uptake by socio-demographic characteristics.
The PHAC faced backlash after it was revealed that the agency had collected cell phone location data from millions of Canadians for COVID-19 compliance monitoring. This revelation raised concerns about privacy and surveillance. One of the reports on the matter highlighted how the cell phone location data collected by the PHAC contained aggregated information about the time spent away from an individual’s primary location, among other things. The full PHAC report can be accessed for more information.
Advanis, the firm contracted by the PHAC, received $296,072.43 to conduct a poll involving a sample of 5,703 Canadians aged 18 and above. The poll aimed to gather data on the factors influencing vaccine uptake and non-vaccination among the population.
The use of cell phone location data for surveillance purposes raises significant privacy concerns. Critics argue that the collection of such data without explicit consent violates individuals’ privacy rights. This incident highlights the need for clear guidelines and transparency in the use of personal data for public health initiatives. While monitoring vaccine uptake and compliance is crucial for managing the COVID-19 pandemic, it should not come at the expense of individuals’ privacy and civil liberties.
The PHAC and Advanis must address these concerns and provide reassurances about the protection of individuals’ privacy and the anonymous and secure handling of sensitive data. Transparency and accountability in surveillance practices are essential to maintain public trust in public health initiatives.
It is important to strike a balance between effectively monitoring public health and respecting individuals’ privacy rights. Governments and organizations involved in data collection for public health purposes must ensure compliance with privacy laws and regulations, as well as ethical considerations. Safeguards should be put in place to protect individuals’ personal information and to prevent the misuse or unauthorized access to sensitive data.
The incident serves as a reminder of the importance of robust privacy regulations and oversight in the digital age. As advancements in technology enable the collection and analysis of vast amounts of data, measures must be in place to safeguard individuals’ privacy and prevent the abuse of personal information.
In conclusion, the contract awarded to Advanis for the surveillance project conducted by the PHAC raises concerns about privacy and surveillance practices. The collection of cell phone location data without explicit consent has sparked a public debate about the balance between monitoring public health and respecting individuals’ privacy rights. Transparency, accountability, and the protection of sensitive data should be prioritized to maintain public trust in public health initiatives.