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Coronavirus: Trudeau rules out phone-based surveillance for now

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The federal government isn’t looking at using location data from Canadians’ phones to track cases of the novel coronavirus, but isn’t ruling it out in the future, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday.

“I think we recognize that in an emergency situation we need to take certain steps that wouldn’t be taken in a non-emergency situation, but as far as I know that is not a situation we are looking at right now,” he said.

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“But … all options are on the table to do what is necessary to keep Canadians safe.”

READ MORE: ‘Enough is enough’ — Trudeau warns Canadians flouting coronavirus social distancing

Trudeau’s comments follow confusing messages from the city of Toronto about whether officials there were using location data from residents’ phones.

The Logic, a technology-focused news site, quoted Toronto Mayor John Tory as saying that the city had started using location data to find out where people were gathering and map it.

“We had … the cellphone companies give us all the data on the pinging off their network on the weekend so we could see, ‘Where were people still congregating?’”  quoted Tory as saying Monday evening.

Tory described the measures as “something we’re doing now …  I asked for it, and I’m getting it.”

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However, the city says that’s not happening.

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“The City of Toronto will not be using cell phone location data, nor does it have such data, to determine where people are not practicing physical distancing. We know the vast majority of people who are not essential or critical workers are staying home to help stop the spread of COVID-19,” spokesperson Brad Ross wrote in an e-mail.

He did not respond to requests for clarification.

Mayoral spokesperson Don Peat told Global News that Tory was answering a question about ways technology could “possibly” help fight COVID-19.

“As City staff made clear this morning, the City of Toronto is not collecting cell phone location data, nor has it received any such data,” he said.

“The City of Toronto will not be using cell phone location data.”

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Last week, Israel started using cellphone location data to track the movements of people who tested positive for COVID-19, and to identify people who had been in contact with them and should be quarantined. The system, designed to track terrorists, covers the movements of millions of people.

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Ontario public health laws give medical officers very extensive powers during an epidemic, but don’t directly refer to access to electronic data.