Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

People line up outside an electronics store on Boxing Day in Montreal on Dec. 26, 2021.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

The office of Canada’s Privacy Commissioner says the Public Health Agency of Canada did not seek its guidance before gathering location data from millions of mobile phones, which the agency has used to analyze travel patterns and inform its policy and messaging during the pandemic.

The data gathering has prompted concerns from Parliament’s standing committee on access to information, privacy and ethics, which is expected to hold an emergency meeting later this week to investigate the program. PHAC has said the data was anonymized and contained no personally identifiable information.

Vito Pilieci, a senior communications adviser at the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, said in a statement on Monday that the office was informed of the disputed program in 2020.

Opinion: A government that misses Step One in transparency sparks a tizzy about ‘surveillance’

“At times, PHAC and Health Canada seek our advice. At other times they do not. In this case, they did not seek our advice on this initiative,” he said.

PHAC spokesperson Anne Génier said in a statement that the agency had consulted privacy and ethics experts, including the Office of the Privacy Commissioner, “to ensure the access to and use of mobility data follows best practices.”

Mr. Pilieci said the commissioner – an agent of Parliament who protects and promotes privacy rights – is examining several complaints about the program, including one from Conservative MP John Brassard, who is a member of the information, privacy and ethics committee.

On Monday, Mr. Brassard wrote a letter with three other committee members – two Conservatives and one Bloc member, René Villemure – requesting the emergency meeting.

Committee chair Pat Kelly said in response that he is consulting members from all parties and will schedule a meeting for later this week.

Mr. Brassard detailed his concerns about the program during a news conference on Monday. “We have lots of questions about this, not the least of which is what this information was used for,” he said. “What possible outcomes were received from PHAC to better mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic?”

“Were they just finding out that people were going to Costco, or were they using this information for purposes that were going to help in the pandemic?”

PHAC did not collect the data itself; it contracted the collection out. The first contract expired in the fall. On Dec. 16, the agency issued a new request for proposals to track countrywide cell tower-based location data from between Jan. 1, 2019, and May 31, 2023.

Ms. Génier said the agency will only consider bids from vendors who meet federal security, legal, privacy and transparency requirements. “This means contractors must demonstrate that the data they provide is de-identified, aggregated, cleaned and preprocessed by removing all personal identifiers,” she said.

She added that the agency’s past data collection also met these requirements.

Mr. Villemure – who was a business ethics consultant before he entered politics and is now vice-chair of the information, privacy and ethics committee – said he has questions about the way the data was used, and concerns about the way PHAC went about using it.

One key concern, Mr. Villemure said, is that PHAC didn’t tell people that it was using the data. Nor, he added, did the agency explain how it was using the data, or why.

Another concern, he said, is that the agency issued a call for tender for more mobile phone location data without revealing explicit details on how the information will be obtained, or whether its use of the information would adhere to privacy laws.

The agency has issued a call for tenders asking for anonymized data, which suggests the raw data obtained by the supplier will include identifying information, Mr. Villemure noted.

Mr. Villemure said it is possible – even easy in some cases – to “reidentify” anonymized information, and that it is not clear whether PHAC has adopted sufficient safeguards to prevent that.

He said he doesn’t want to condemn the agency’s intentions, but rather its methods. “They have a purpose, which is commendable. But the method they used is questionable.”

New Democrat MP Matthew Green, also a committee member, was not involved with the call for an emergency meeting, but he said in a statement that the agency’s data collection is an “intrusion on the privacy of Canadians.”

“It’s deeply concerning that the Liberals have not been forthcoming on how much cellphone location data they’ve been collecting without Canadians’ knowledge. We are calling for the suspension of this practice pending the review to ensure that information on Canadians is being collected and used responsibly with their own consent,” he said.

With reports from Campbell Clark and the Canadian Press

For subscribers only: Get exclusive political news and analysis by signing up for the Politics Briefing.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe