Members of the House of Commons ethics committee locked horns Thursday over whether to halt the Public Health Agency of Canada’s further use of mobile location data — and they hope the issue might spark larger discussions regarding this country’s privacy laws.
“I think this provides us with a perfect opportunity (for) this committee to call in privacy and security and surveillance experts from across Canada and around the world to talk about an important issue, and that is privacy and data protection in the digital age,” said Conservative MP John Brassard, who first called for a probe into the matter earlier this week.
At issue is the federal agency’s decision to analyze de-identified and aggregated mobility data to monitor the travel patterns of millions of Canadians throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, along with its recent plans to continue the practice until May 2023.
The data is used to measure the effectiveness of various public health directives. It was first offered to PHAC by Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada’s communication research centre early in the pandemic.
In December 2020, the agency began obtaining the information from the Telus Data for Good program, which purports to share anonymized data for “socially beneficial” purposes. The Telus contract expired last fall, leading PHAC to post a request for proposals in December to continue receiving the data until 2023.
The agency also told the Star that it has been working with Toronto-based digital health company BlueDot to further understand population movements through the use of “crowdsourced” mobility data.
On Thursday, the committee passed a motion to summon Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos and Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, to address the practice.