Is public health reason enough for Ottawa to review your cell phone data?

OTTAWA — Members of the House of Commons Ethics Committee agreed Thursday on whether to stop the Public Health Agency of Canada’s use of mobile location data — and they hope the issue could spark broader discussions regarding that country’s privacy laws.

“I think this provides us with a perfect opportunity (for) this committee to bring in privacy, security and surveillance experts from across Canada and around the world to talk about an important issue, which is the privacy and data protection in the digital age,” said Tory MP John Brassard, who first called for an investigation into the matter earlier this week.

At issue is the federal agency’s decision to analyze anonymized and aggregated mobility data to monitor the travel habits of millions of Canadians throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as its recent plans to continue the practice. until May 2023.

The data is used to measure the effectiveness of various public health guidelines. It was first offered to PHAC by the Communications Research Center of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada at the start of the pandemic.

In December 2020, the agency began obtaining the information from the Telus Data for Good program, which claims to share anonymized data for “socially beneficial” purposes. Telus’ contract expired last fall, prompting PHAC to issue a request for proposals in December to continue receiving data through 2023.

The agency also told the Star that it was working with Toronto-based digital health company BlueDot to better understand population movements through the use of crowdsourced mobility data.

On Thursday, the committee passed a motion to summon Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos and Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, to address the practice.

The meeting was adjourned before MPs could vote on a separate motion by Bloc Québécois MP Rene Villemure calling for the current call for proposals to be suspended, with Liberal MPs calling such a move premature.

“I think it would be a very bad precedent for the federal government to suspend something that our public health officials have used to save the lives of Canadians for the past two years,” said Liberal MP Iqra Khalid, deputy – chairman of the committee. alongside Villemure.

“I think we need to delve into this issue significantly before making such a decision.”

But common ground can be found among MPs — and privacy experts — on Canada’s outdated privacy laws.

“I feel like technology is overtaking legislation when it comes to the privacy of Canadians in terms of what information is collected about them: how, by whom, for what purpose and whether or not they are notified,” said the only member of the NDP committee. , Matthew Green, told the Star.

“I heard some pretty offhand remarks today about how everyone who gets the iPhone signs the company’s terms and conditions, which allows your information to be bought and sold. I have the impression that the government should be held to a higher standard than that.

The question opens a door to address long-standing calls for privacy law reform, said Christopher Parsons, senior fellow at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab.

This means reviewing Canada’s federal commercial privacy law to give people a better understanding of how their data is being used and reused – and giving them the option to consent to those uses.

Parsons said there must also be clearer safeguards about how federal agencies use the data they have obtained and for what additional purposes.

“The committee’s hearings serve to educate Canadians about how data can be collected from their mobile devices, both by mobile carriers and by apps on their phones. And the information the committee collects (can be) used to develop and propose a significantly reformed privacy law,” Parsons said.

“If this turns into political theater, it will be another lost opportunity.”

Opposition MPs, led by the Tories, have spent much of this week accusing the agency of running its tracking project in secret, with little oversight and transparency.

Liberal members of the committee rejected that claim on Thursday, with Khalid pointing to a federal press release early in the pandemic listing Ottawa’s plans to use BlueDot analysis to monitor the spread of COVID-19.

The government has also been posting some of its findings on an online dashboard since December 2020, so Canadians can monitor the data in their local health region.

But there remains a serious lack of transparency when it comes to specifying where and how this data was obtained, Parsons said.

The Federal Privacy Commissioner of Canada is currently investigating how the data is anonymized after receiving complaints alleging privacy breaches.

The committee is due to resume debate on Monday.

PR

Raisa Patel is an Ottawa journalist who covers federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @R_SPatel

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