Canada’s privacy watchdog is probing federal officials’ use of “de-identified” cellphone location data to measure the efficacy of COVID-19 public health measures.
The Public Health Agency of Canada acknowledged last month it has been purchasing access to cellphone location data in order to analyze Canadians’ movements during the pandemic.
The agency has said the data is aggregated and “de-identified” — meaning it can’t be used to pinpoint individual Canadians’ locations or travel habits.
The program’s existence nevertheless raised concerns with privacy advocates and opposition politicians, who successfully forced an emergency Commons committee meeting on the issue.
A spokesperson for Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien confirmed his office has received multiple complaints about the program, and are now looking into how PHAC assured the data could not be used to track individuals.
“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. The government relied on other experts to that end, which is their prerogative,” wrote Tobi Cohen, a spokesperson for Therrien’s office, in a statement to Global News.
“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.”
According to a request for proposals issued in December, PHAC is looking to extend its analysis of cellphone location data through 2023 to “understand trends in the movement of populations during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The location data is collected through cell towers that mobile devices connect to as Canadians move around their communities. Law enforcement agencies occasionally request such “tower dump” data in the course of criminal investigations.
Unlike police, however, PHAC is asking that the supplier remove all identifying information from the data and grant mobile users the ability to opt out of sharing mobility data.
But the document makes clear PHAC intends to use the data beyond measuring how effective COVID lockdowns and other public health measures have been.
“As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds in Canada and the world, analysis of location data continues to be an important part of the federal response. Beyond the pandemic mobility data will play an important role in understanding population movement impact on other public health challenges,” the document read.
“This data when combined with other data sources for analysis can generate important public health insights such as the ability to estimate (the) impact of public health outcomes and risk factors.”
Teresa Scassa, who researches information law and policy at the University of Ottawa, noted coverage of PHAC’s program has focused on the government possessing the information — rather than the fact that private companies collect and sell Canadians’ location data all the time.
“People seem to be much more concerned about government accessing the data than they are about the fact it’s being collected so widely and often so rapaciously by the private sector,” Scassa told Global News in an interview.
But Scassa suggested Canada’s aging privacy laws are insufficient in the age of big data — both for the private sector collecting and using sensitive information for profit, and governments becoming clients of third-party data brokers.
“There may be perfectly good reasons and justifications for allowing government to access data that’s been collected by the private sector. But I think we need to have a legislative regime that actually properly addresses the way in which data is now flowing,” Scassa said.
“It’s not just about, you know, setting rules for how government departments collect data from individuals. It’s really about, you know, how big data are acquired, shared, used and what conditions should be set for that (use).”
The House of Commons’ access to information and privacy committee is scheduled to begin its study into PHAC’s use of location data on Thursday.