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A jogger keeps his distance from a woman walking her dog in downtown Toronto, Ontario on March 24, 2020.


The City of Toronto is denying it is using cellphone data to fight the coronavirus pandemic, despite Mayor John Tory’s earlier comments that surveillance to gauge people’s proximity to each other is already under way by public-health officials.

On Monday, Mr. Tory – a former executive at Rogers Communications Inc. – said in a video interview that the city had requested such data from telecom companies and that officials were using them to assess the effectiveness of social distancing.

One day later, a city spokesman denied any such handovers took place. “The City of Toronto will not be using cellphone location data, nor does it have such data,” Brad Ross said.

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Countries such as Israel and Taiwan are fighting coronavirus with advanced cellphone-tracking techniques that can involve data handovers from telecom companies.

In Canada, elected officials have made confusing and contradictory remarks about the worth and viability of such techniques – even though legal experts say emergency decrees could outweigh privacy concerns and allow such information sharing.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters the federal government has no immediate plans to use such tracking tools. One week ago, Ontario Premier Doug Ford was asked about handovers of cellphone data and said “everything’s on the table.” Officials have not clarified his remarks.

Observers say governments would need to proceed transparently. “We’ve got to figure out if and when and how data is going to be used by public officials to respond to coronavirus,” said Michael Bryant, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. In an interview he added that “all three levels of governments are doing a poor job” of communicating specific plans.

Federal regulations require telecommunications networks to be able to track cellphones. Such data usually are given to police only in cases such as a missing person, or when they have judicial authorizations to track suspected criminals.

But the scale and the extent of the coronavirus crisis is forcing a reconsideration of whether public-health officials need such data – in bulk.

Big anonymous sets of data, for example, could help them see whether people are taking heed of social-distancing directives. More particular forms of cellphone tracking could help them determine whether quarantined infected people are isolating themselves.

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Several cellphone carriers – including Rogers, BCE Inc.’s Bell Canada, and Shaw Communications Inc. – said on Tuesday that the City of Toronto has not contacted them regarding data collection.

“We haven’t been asked by any governments for this kind of support, but would consider it if it helps in the fight against COVID-19 while respecting privacy laws,” Bell spokesperson Marc Choma said in an e-mail.

Public-health officials in Ottawa have recently said cellphone data might be useful in the fight against coronavirus – but they don’t have any, and neither does Ontario. “It’s always better if we can build surveillance systems that are connected to each other, and that we work with the province,” said Vera Etches, medical officer of health for Ottawa. But she added that right now “it’s a thought, it’s an imagination, that maybe this could be helpful.”

Several government-appointed privacy commissioners have lately reminded organizations that traditional barriers against sharing information go down in times of crisis.

That said, cellphone-tracking measures would still be subject to checks and balances. “I would expect the governments to establish clear rules for how the information is collected, transferred and used and for what purposes,” said Brian Beamish, the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario.

On Monday, Mr. Tory appeared on videolink in an interview with the group TechTO. His remarks were first reported by The Logic, an online news service.

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“I’ll give you an example of something we are doing now. And it may or may not help much, I don’t know, but I asked for it and I’m getting it,” Mr. Tory said.

“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? Because the biggest enemy of fighting this thing is people congregating close together.”

Toronto Fire Chief Matthew Pegg, who has been helping manage the city’s coronavirus response, said Mr. Tory was actually speaking about one of several “suggestions” made for the city’s Emergency Operations Centre (EOC).

“I’m as you can appreciate, there has been and continues to be a wide variety of suggestions that come to the city and into our EOC process with respect to opportunities to assist in potentially dealing with this issue,” Mr. Pegg said. “So that’s an example of one of the suggestions that’s been made.”

With a report from The Canadian Press

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