It is a good thing when a Canadian government agency wants to bring itself into the modern era by studying how its policies work in the real world. It is a bad thing when it does so in a witless way that hands genuine questions to the conspiracy-minded.
So it was with the Public Health Agency of Canada’s efforts to use data from cellphone towers about Canadians’ movements – which had been anonymized so that it did not identify individuals – for a study.
The lessons to be learned start with this simple one: The time to tell Canadians you are studying the movements of millions of people’s cellphones is before you do it. Not when it comes out later.
The agency is now the subject of stories about how it had to “admit” that it had “tracked” millions of cellphones, including a breathless New York Post story about how Canada’s federal government admitted to “secretly surveilling its population’s movements.”
PHAC has said it used only disaggregated and de-identified data, acquired from data suppliers that reportedly included Telus Communications Inc.’s Data for Good program, to study things such as how people’s movements affect transmission of COVID-19. It had access to the data for seven months, and now is seeking to buy several years’ worth.
But there are concerns that anonymized data can be “reidentified,” by combining it with other data to piece together the identities of individuals and determine their movements.
It is worth noting that the suggestions of government surveillance leaned heavily on the notion that the collection of this cellphone data was all done secretly – “clandestinely,” the New York Post wrote.
A key thing a government can do in assuring people that their privacy is not being breached is provide transparency about its data use. Step 1 in transparency is telling everyone about it. Ahead of time. Full disclosure.
If I had to wager, I’d bet the folks at PHAC are not actually interested in conducting secret surveillance of the Canadian population. It’s hard to imagine they would be up to the task, anyway.
But that’s not a subject for wagering. It is a matter for safeguards and transparency.
There is a high level of mistrust around government data collection, but most people probably give data on their movements to traffic-map apps such as Google Maps or Waze. PHAC had to get the data from a phone company.
Anonymized data such as this is regularly used by economists and other academics to provide important insights. Governments, which have long formulated public policy by relying on assumptions about the impact of their measures, could presumably do a lot better if they could base choices on solid evidence drawn from real-world data. Surely there is a way to do that without raising the spectre of Big Brother watching us.
But PHAC did not do it the right way. You would think that after a year of seeing simple health messages struggle against conspiracy theories about masks and vaccinations, the agency would get it.
Even now, the agency offers bare assurances that don’t inspire faith. In a statement, a spokesperson for Health Canada, Anne Génier, said PHAC consulted experts, including the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, “every step of the way,” to ensure practices that would protect privacy. Yet a spokesperson for Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien, Vito Pilieci, said the office had been informed of PHAC’s project, but not asked for advice.
Now the Conservatives and the Bloc Québécois have called for a hearing into PHAC’s use of the data at the Commons ethics committee. Let’s hope they focus on safeguards, and not on stoking the notion that the public health agency was engaging in mass surveillance. But they should ask questions.
Bloc MP René Villemure, who was a business ethics consultant before entering politics, expressed two concerns. The first was that PHAC didn’t inform the public about what it was doing or provide a rationale. The second was that this type of data collection creates the potential for abuse, and it is not clear if there are safeguards in place. Those concerns might have been allayed by disclosure.
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