Updated: December 22, 2021
-The Epoch Times
Canada’s federal health agency has been using cellphone data to track the anonymized movements of Canadians since the onset of the pandemic in order to inform policy and public messaging, and it intends to continue the practice after the COVID-19 crisis is over.
Reported by Blacklock’s on Dec. 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] collected and used mobility data, such as cell-tower location data, throughout the COVID-19 response to help understand possible links between the movement of populations within Canada and COVID-19 impacts,” the statement said.
The agency said it used the data to measure the public’s responsiveness to lockdowns and the information was regularly shared with provinces and territories to help them in their policy decisions.
PHAC said it’s the first time it used mobility data in its public health analysis, but it intends to continue the practice post-pandemic and apply it to “challenges including other infectious diseases, chronic disease prevention, and mental health.”
On Dec. 16, the agency issued a request for proposal (RFP) to enlist the services of a contractor to help establish access to cellphone “processed data with no interruption.”
“These analyses and findings provide situational awareness and help inform 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 beginning in Jan. 1, 2019, until the end of the contract in May 2023, with the option to extend it for three years to 2026.
A cellphone can be tracked in different ways, such as by triangulating its signal which connects or “pings” to cell towers in 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’s 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 by companies like Environics Analytics and Drako Media has been reported in the media, and tech giant Google has been sharing anonymized and aggregated worldwide user location data since April 2020 in Community Mobility Reports.
PHAC says in its RFP that it requires access to cell tower data, since it provides the “most stable and representative sample of the Canadian population.”
PHAC says it will not be able to identify or track individuals with the data and that its privacy management division was consulted in the development of the RFP.
Valerie Lawton, communications director at the Office of the Privacy Commissioner, said the office is aware of the media reports about the RFP and is seeking information from PHAC regarding the initiative.
The RFP stipulates that the data provided must be de-identified to protect the privacy of the cellphone users and the contractor will also have to let the users easily opt out of the mobility data sharing program.
PHAC didn’t immediately respond when asked what would be the process for users to opt out, or whether it would make the public aware of its program and that people have the right to refuse to participate.
The agency also didn’t say how it obtained the data it is using so far for its mobility analysis and what it will do with the already-collected and analyzed data, since users didn’t have the chance to opt out. A previous RFP for a similar project was not found in the government contract database.
The Epoch Times contacted major carriers Bell and Rogers to find out if they have been providing cellphone data to PHAC, but neither responded. Bell told CBC in March 2020 it would consider providing the data to the government to “fight against COVID-19 while respecting privacy law.”
A report on how the pandemic has affected people’s privacy was released in September by Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto. While the report did not address PHAC’s mobility tracking, it did look at the agency’s mandate.
“Under PHAC’s extensive mandate and given that the Privacy Act is highly permissive in enabling 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 collection of personal information in a pandemic situation would relate directly to PHAC’s public health mandate,” says the report, titled “Pandemic Privacy.”
The report says PHAC’s mandate and the regulation-making power for the minister “collectively create a powerful data-collection capability at the federal level with few explicit safeguards.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in March 2020 that tracking cellphone users was not being considered.
“I think we recognize that in an emergency situation we need to take certain steps that wouldn’t be taken in non-emergency situations, but as far as I know that is not a situation we’re looking at right now,” he said in a media briefing.
He added, however, that “all options are on the table to do what is necessary to keep Canadians safe in these exceptional times.”