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Ethics committee summons Duclos, Tam on mobile-phone data collection during pandemic

Ethics committee summons Duclos, Tam on mobile-phone data collection during pandemic
Written by Publishing Team

OTTAWA – The House of Commons Ethics Committee has called on the Minister of Health to explain Public Health Canada’s collection of data from millions of mobile phones to understand travel patterns during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Opposition lawmakers on the committee fear the pandemic could be used to undermine the privacy of Canadians who were unaware that a government agency was collecting mobile phone data.

During an emergency meeting Thursday, the House Committee passed a motion asking Jean-Yves Duclos and Canada’s public health official, Dr. Theresa Tam, to appear before it to answer policy questions.

The House is still in recess, but four opposition lawmakers on the committee requested an emergency session after the public health agency published a notice indicating it planned to extend the data-collection practice.

Conservative Party, Bloc Quebecois and NDP lawmakers on the committee have raised concerns about the policy’s implications for privacy.

In December, the Public Health Agency issued a new Request for Proposals to track location data based on cell towers across the country between January 1, 2019 and May 31, 2023.

The notice states that the data must be accurate, accessible and timely, in addition to ensuring privacy and transparency. It should be stripped of all identifying information.

John Brassard, a Conservative Ethics spokesman and committee member, said the request for proposals was due to expire before MPs return to Parliament after their winter recess, but has now been extended until February 4.

Brassard said the collection of data by the public health agency raises many “red flags” about privacy.

He told the commission on Thursday that the public health agency was “collecting data without the knowledge of Canadians, and doing it covertly.”

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

The public health agency said in a statement that it notified the privacy commissioner of the process, and it has been notified by its privacy and ethics experts as well.

“Secretary Duclos has also been in contact with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner and confirmed PHAC’s continued commitment to protecting and preserving the privacy of citizens and people in Canada while ensuring that Canada has the data necessary to understand and communicate our ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Greg Fergus, a liberal member of the Privacy Committee, said all members of the committee agreed that it was “important to protect the privacy rights of Canadians”.

But he said the information was aggregate data “which has been depersonalized so there is no information that can identify individuals.”

“It is unfair to say that we are tracking Canadians. This is absolutely not the case,” Fergus told the commission. “When we ask for non-personal data that cannot identify a person, that is just data.”

“By analyzing population movement data, we can better understand the public’s response to public health guidance,” the public health agency said.

It said that in December 2020, it entered into a “single-source contract” with a telecom operator that expired in October 2021.

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

Brassard wrote last week to the privacy commissioner, Daniel Terrain, to ask him to investigate the matter.

The commissioner’s office said in a statement that it had not opened a formal investigation. But it said, after receiving complaints of alleged privacy breaches, it “will direct our attention to the means chosen to de-identify information transmitting data.”

In 2020, the Commissioner’s office published a document on privacy and initiatives in response to COVID-19 that warned organizations to be aware of the risk of re-identifying anonymous information.

She added that the government had not asked the commissioner for specific advice on whether there were “adequate safeguards against re-identification”.

“The government has relied on other experts for this purpose, and this is their specialty,” the commissioner’s office said.

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

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