The House committee responsible for overseeing privacy issues unanimously voted Thursday to conduct a study of the federal health agency’s mobility analysis program, which relies on data obtained from cellphones.
At the onset of the special meeting of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy, and Ethics, Conservative MP and critic for ethics John Brassard presented the initial motion on the study, which will require the testimony of the health minister and the chief public health officer, and members of the committee will also submit a list of witnesses.
“Mr. Chair, it becomes increasingly concerning that government is seemingly using this pandemic as a means and a cause for massive overreach into the privacy rights of Canadians,” said Brassard.
“And as parliamentarians, it’s incumbent upon us to make sure that we protect those rights, that there is proper scrutiny and oversight, not just the privacy rights, but the constitutional rights of Canadians.”
Brassard said the committee should look into three main issues, including the data collection contract of the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), PHAC’s Request for Proposal (RFP) to enlist the service of a contractor to obtain data from cell towers, as well the general issue of “privacy and data protection in the digital age.”
It was reported last December that PHAC has been analyzing the anonymized movements of Canadians since the onset of the pandemic to evaluate policies, frame public messaging, and assess the responsiveness to coercive measures like lockdowns.
PHAC has obtained its data from Telus’s Data for Good program, as well as from the Communications Research Centre, which itself obtained the data from crowd-sourcing company Tutela. The latter collects data from 300 million devices worldwide by embedding its software in over 3,000 smartphone applications.
All data providers and seekers involved have said one way or another that the privacy of cellphone users has been and will be respected through de-identification, but some members of the committee said Canadians should get due diligence from their elected officials.
“I think that Health Canada had a laudable end game, I don’t think PHAC was trying to spy on Canadians,” said committee vice-chair Bloc MP René Villemure. “However, I do have a lot of questions about who acted on behalf of PHAC, who collected the data for what, by who? What was the security process behind all of this?”
Liberal MPs on the committee agreed with conducting the review but said that PHAC has respected Canadians’ privacy and voiced that the mobility analysis it is conducting is being used in many other jurisdictions and has become a key pandemic tool.
Iqra Khalid, the other committee vice-chair, said she believed PHAC “did take into account what that accountability, that transparency really looks like around privacy.”
“I do appreciate the privacy concerns and I think it’s valid to look at how data is collected and to ensure that Canadians’ personal cellphone data isn’t something that’s being collected,” said Liberal MP Lisa Hepfner.
“This is mobility data. It’s being used in jurisdictions all over the world to help authorities deal with a pandemic. It’s really valuable information about where people are moving based on their postal codes.”
Villemure tried to put forward a motion at the end of the meeting to suspend PHAC’s RFP—which was due to close on Jan. 21 but was recently amended to conclude on Feb. 4—citing the need for more time to study it. The motion was not fully debated and could be addressed during the committee’s next meeting.
Brassard agrees with that motion, saying the RFP “needs to be put off until we are confident, until Canadians are confident that their data and their privacy is not going to be compromised as a result of this RFP.”
Khalid voiced opposition, saying PHAC shouldn’t be prevented from obtaining a useful tool, and said Canadians should trust the safeguards put in place.
“Canada, over the past couple of years, has done really well with its response to COVID. And we’ve done that because we’ve had trust and faith in our public health officials,” she said.
Khalid said she supports the first motion, which raises “absolutely valid” issues, but on suspending the RFP she said, “The last thing we need to do is to create fear-mongering,” in reference to interpretations that PHAC will track or spy on Canadians.