Ethics committee calls on PHAC to halt cellphone data collection to study COVID-19 patterns

Click to play video: 'Privacy watchdog investigates PHAC’s use of Canadians’ cellphone location data'
Privacy watchdog investigates PHAC’s use of Canadians’ cellphone location data
WATCH: Privacy watchdog investigates PHAC's use of Canadians' cellphone location data – Jan 13, 2022

The House of Commons ethics committee has called for a halt to the Public Health Agency of Canada‘s plans to collect data from millions of mobile phones as a way to understand travel patterns during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The committee passed a motion Monday calling on the federal government to suspend plans to extend the collection of cellphone location data until its members are satisfied the privacy of Canadians will not be affected.

In December, the federal public health agency issued a new request for proposals to track countrywide cell tower-based location data between Jan. 1, 2019 and May 31, 2023.

The notice said the data must be accurate, accessible and timely, as well as ensuring privacy and transparency. It must also be stripped of all identifying information.

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Click to play video: 'Conservative ethics critics demand answers on PHAC location tracking'
Conservative ethics critics demand answers on PHAC location tracking

The news prompted the ethics committee to hold an emergency meeting during Parliament’s winter break, where Conservative, Bloc Quebecois and NDP MPs raised privacy concerns.

Liberal MPs pointed out the data being collected is anonymous.

The motion passed Monday that urges a pause on the plans was amended by MPs and had cross-party support.

Conservative committee member John Brassard, the ethics critic for his party, said the motion means the prime minister should now suspend the proposal to extend the collection of millions of people’s mobile-phone data.

“We still have significant concerns what security protocols and measures were put in place to protect privacy when they secretly collected the mobility data of 33 million Canadians,” he said.

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The Public Health Agency of Canada, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday, has previously said that location data from cellphone towers would be stripped of personal identifiers.

It said it has also taken advice from privacy and ethics experts, including the privacy commissioner.

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