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A woman has her COVID-19 QR code scanned at a gym in Montreal, on Sept. 1, 2021.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos and Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, have been summoned to explain to the House of Commons ethics committee why location data from millions of mobile phones were gathered to help shape pandemic policy and messaging.

The committee voted on Thursday to call them to testify for an hour each.

Opposition MPs are raising concerns about the collection of the data. “This is an incredibly important issue,” Conservative MP John Brassard said at Thursday’s meeting, adding that accountability is at the heart of the matter.

He said he wants to know about the contract under which the Public Health Agency of Canada sought the collection of data “without the knowledge of Canadians, effectively doing it in secret,” and what security measures were in place to protect privacy rights.

He said he is also concerned about a request for proposal on another contract to collect more such data.

The hearings are an opportunity for privacy, security and surveillance experts to talk about ways to protect people’s information in the digital age, he said.

Liberal MP Greg Fergus, a member of the committee, said the data were “depersonalized” and included nothing that would identify individuals.

However, he said he was not averse to a review of the matter.

“I would say that there is great openness and consensus on the part of all parliamentarians to get to the bottom of the question if this is not the case. We should investigate and reassure Canadians about how their data is being used and that it’s being used correctly,” he said.

“So if we can put aside partisan questions and do sincere work and investigate this matter, I think we’ll arrive at a consensus.”

Public Health contracted the collection out to Telus Mobility. 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. The agency said the data previously collected were anonymized and contained no personally identifiable information.

In a statement issued this week after the opposition raised the issue, Public Health spokesperson Anne Génier said secure, de-identified and aggregated data are needed to evaluate the effectiveness of public-health directives during the pandemic.

“By analyzing population movement data, we can better understand the public’s responsiveness to public health directives,” she wrote.

She noted that the new request for proposals is a means to continue the collection of such data through an “open and transparent” process.

Ms. Génier said Mr. Duclos has been in touch with the office of the privacy commissioner and underlined PHAC’s commitment to protect and preserve the privacy of citizens while ensuring Canada has the data needed for its response to the pandemic.

The agency has said it 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.

The Privacy Commissioner’s office said Public Health did not seek its guidance before gathering the location data.

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