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Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Canada’s federal health agency is collecting cellphone data to inform pandemic policies

Canada’s Federal Health Agency has been using cellphone data to track the anonymous movements of Canadians since the start of the pandemic to inform policy and public messaging, and this practice continues after the COVID-19 crisis ends. intends to keep.

Reported by Blacklock on December 21, the news was confirmed by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) in an emailed statement to The Epoch Times.

“Due to the urgency of the pandemic, [PHAC] Mobility data such as cell-tower location data is collected and used during the COVID-19 response to help understand the potential link between population movement in Canada and COVID-19 impacts,” the statement said.

The agency said it used the data to measure the public’s response to the lockdown and that the information was regularly shared with provinces and territories to help with their policy decisions.

PHAC said this is the first time it has used mobility data in its public health analysis, but intends to continue the practice post-pandemic and will address “other infectious diseases, chronic disease prevention and challenges including mental health.” “To apply.

On 16 December, the agency issued a request for proposal (RFP) enlisting the services of a contractor to help establish access to cellphone “processed data without interruption”.

,In provide analysis and conclusions Help inform situational awareness and policy, public health messaging, evaluation of public health measures, and other aspects related to public health response, programming, planning, and preparedness,” the RFP says.

While the pandemic first reached Canada in late 2020, PHAC is seeking access to location data from January 1, 2019, until the end of the contract in May 2023, with the option to extend it for three years until 2026.

A cellphone can be tracked in different ways, such as by triangulating its signal which connects or “pings” cell towers in close proximity. It can also be tracked through mobile apps that use location services (which can combine GPS, cell tower triangulation and Wi-Fi data), which then sell the acquired information to data aggregation and marketing companies. .

Blacklock reported that PHAC tracked 33 million mobile devices via cell tower locators.

The issue of tracking people’s movements during the pandemic using cellphone data has been reported in the media by companies such as Environics Analytics and Drako Media, and the tech giant’s Google Community Mobility Report from April 2020 on anonymous and aggregated worldwide user locations Sharing data.

PHAC states in its RFP that it needs access to cell tower data, as it provides “the most stable and representative sample of the Canadian population.”

Privacy concerns

PHAC says it will not be able to identify or track individuals with the data and that its privacy management department was consulted in developing the RFP.

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The Epoch Times sought comment from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner regarding PHAC’s collection and analysis program, but did not receive a response by press time.

The RFP stipulates that the data provided must be de-identified to protect the privacy of cellphone users and the contractor must allow users to easily opt out of the Mobility Data Sharing Program.

PHAC did not immediately respond when asked what the process would be for users to opt out, or whether it would make the public aware of its program and that people have a right to refuse to participate.

The agency also did not say how it obtained the data it used for its mobility analysis so far and what it will do with the data already collected and analyzed, as users do not have a chance to opt out. Was. The previous RFP for a similar project was not found in the government contract database.

The Epoch Times also contacted major carriers Bell and Rogers to find out whether they were providing cellphone data to PHAC, but no one responded. Bell told CBC in March 2020 that she would consider providing data to the government to “fight against COVID-19 while respecting privacy laws.”

A report on how the pandemic has affected people’s privacy was released by the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto in September. While the report did not address PHAC’s mobility tracking, it did look at the agency’s mandate.

“Under PHAC’s broad mandate and given that the Privacy Act enables government organizations to collect, use and disclose personal information when doing so is directly related to one of the organization’s operational activities, almost any The collection status of personal information in a pandemic will be directly related to PHAC’s public health mandate,” says the report, titled “Pandemic Privacy.”

The report said the PHAC’s mandate and rule-making power for the minister “collectively create a powerful data-collection capability at the federal level with some clear safeguards in place.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in March 2020 that tracking cellphone users was not being considered.

“I think we recognize that in an emergency we need to take some steps that would not be taken in non-emergency situations, but as far as I know this is not a situation that we are seeing right now. are,” he said. At a media briefing.

However, he added, “all options are on the table to do what is necessary to keep Canadians safe in these extraordinary times.”

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Noé Chartier is an Epoch Times reporter based in Montreal.

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