Published:February 9, 2022
The House of Commons has narrowly voted to put an end to the Public Health Agency of Canada’s (PHAC) surveillance program that spied on 33 million mobile devices.
173 MPs voted to end the program while 155 MPs wanted it to continue.
“There was no consent given by users to allow the telecom companies to collect this data,” said Conservative MP John Brassard. “(Canadians) are becoming increasingly concerned about the expansive overreach by the government.”
The vote placed the program under suspension pending the outcomes of Commons ethics committee hearings.
“We are simply not at the point of understanding how this data was collected, whether it was properly de-identified, what the risks of re-identification are and why the Privacy Commissioner was not involved in the process,” said Brassard.
Originally shrouded in secrecy, PHAC’s data sweep was exposed after it was revealed that the federal government put out a tender for contractors to monitor pandemic-related data for years to come.
After the story surfaced in January, PHAC officials admitted that they had monitored the cell tower locations of millions of Canadians’ devices but claimed that the data was anonymized and stripped of all identifiable information.
As exclusively reported by True North, experts doubt the government’s assurances. According to Ontario’s former privacy commissioner and Executive Director of Global Privacy and Security by Design Ann Cavoukian, Canadians should have “zero trust” that appropriate measures were taken to protect privacy.
“I don’t trust any of this. Zero trust, that’s where we have to start and we have to have some privacy commissioner’s office go in and take a look at this under the hood. Audit what they’re doing,” said Cavoukian.
After the ensuing public outrage, Canada’s privacy commissioner launched an audit into the PHAC surveillance.
“We were not asked for advice as to whether the means taken by or on behalf of the government provided adequate safeguards against re-identification,” said Privacy Commissioner of Canada spokesperson Tobi Cohen. “The government relied on other experts to that end, which is their prerogative.”
“Now that we have received complaints alleging violations of privacy, we will turn our attention to the means chosen to de-identify the data mobility information relied upon by the government for public health purposes.”