Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne says the government will affirm Canadians’ “fundamental right to privacy” in upcoming legislation after the Public Health Agency admitted to tracking the movements of millions of Canadian smartphone users without their consent during pandemic lockdowns.
Mr. Champagne told the Commons industry committee that Bill C-27 would enshrine Canadians’ “fundamental right to privacy,” according to Blacklock’s Reporter. He told the committee the legislation had not been updated for 20 years and that it was important to move forward to amend privacy laws for Canadians, pointing to technology’s rapid evolution.
Committee hearings on the current bill come after disclosure that the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) had contracted telecom companies to share data on the movements of millions of Canadian smartphone users without their knowledge or consent. PHAC defended its data collection by saying the measure was required to track Canadians’ adherence to pandemic lockdown rules.
“We want to ensure Canadians are able to rest easy knowing their privacy will be respected,” Mr. Champagne told the Standing Committee on Industry and Technology on Sept. 26. “I would encourage all of my colleagues to vote in favour of this amendment. I think Canada will be seen as a world leader.”
Ontario New Democrat MP Brian Masse told Mr. Champagne he would like to see a written draft of the “actual, drafted” legal amendments, but Mr. Champagne declined to put any of the proposals in writing.
“Amendments are legal context that go to the legislation; or are we at ‘ideas’ right now?” Mr. Masse asked.
“What I am telling you is the direction,” replied Mr. Champagne. “This is my opportunity to be in front of you to say what we intend to do.”
The comments made by the industry minister followed the committee’s consideration of the act, titled, “An Act To Enact The Consumer Privacy Protection Act,” introduced on June 16, 2022. The legislation aims to limit unauthorized commercial use of personal data.
The minister said the bill also “proposes robust guardrails for the responsible development, deployment and use of AI systems.” Mr. Champagne said that the Liberal government intends to qualify privacy as a fundamental right.
Government agencies are free from privacy laws, and the proposed legislation would allow for the sale of anonymized data in bulk, according to Blacklock’s. Mr. Champagne said the bill would require any request for consent to share data to be written in plain language.
Former Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian said at a 2022 Commons Ethics Committee hearing that data collection by PHAC was “excessive.”
“At the very least, the government should have provided notice to the public saying, ‘This is what we’re doing, here is why we’re doing it,’” said Ms. Cavoukian.
“We have got to have some debate about these issues,” she said. “The Public Health Agency cannot just decide to do that without telling anybody. That’s what I object to the most, the total lack of transparency.”