Ontario’s former privacy commissioner is sounding the alarm about the government’s tracking of cellphone data to inform policy, after it was revealed recently that a federal agency has been analyzing the movements of Canadians since the onset of the pandemic.
“It concerns me enormously that this would enable the government to collect more and more information,” Ann Cavoukian told The Epoch Times.
“I do not want to [see] a trend where the government is consistently doing this and starting now. You can’t trust the government.”
Cavoukian, who served as Ontario’s privacy commissioner from 1997 to 2014, is founder of the advocacy group Global Privacy & Security by Design and heads the Privacy by Design Centre of Excellence at Ryerson University.
“In March 2020, [Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau said that tracking cellphone users was not being considered. Well, they did it, PHAC’s been doing it, and they want to do it even more,” Cavoukian said.
First reported by Blacklock’s Reporter on Dec. 21, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) has since confirmed that it has been using cellphone data to conduct analysis of Canadians’ anonymized movements in the context of the pandemic, and that it plans on expanding the program to other health issues and continuing it until 2026.
“[Officials] say ‘as soon as the emergency is over, we’re going to return to privacy.’ They don’t. The privacy invasive measures that are introduced during emergencies, pandemics, etc., often continue well after the emergency is over,” said Cavoukian.
She believes PHAC wanted to “keep this under wraps … because they know people do not want to have their mobile devices tracked.”
Part of the data used by PHAC was obtained through Telus’s Data for Good program beginning in March and ending Oct. 8.
Cavoukian said she’s not worried about the Telus data because they “take privacy very seriously,” noting that the company has obtained certification for various products and services five times through the Privacy by Design program she runs at Ryerson University.
However, she said she’s concerned about other data sources used by PHAC that are unknown.
Other cellphone data PHAC accessed came from the Communications Research Centre (CRC), a little-known organization under Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada that specializes in wireless research and big data analytics.
“In partnership with CRC, PHAC has been producing report summaries to look at how movement trends of the Canadian population have changed over the course of the pandemic, including identifying new patterns to help direct public health messaging, planning, and policy development,” PHAC said in a statement to The Epoch Times.
The health agency said it “did not receive or collect any individual mobility data” and that “no individual-level data has been acquired or stored by PHAC.”
PHAC is now looking for a contractor to provide it with a steady flow of de-identified cellphone data. It posted its request for proposal (RFP) online on Dec. 16.