The Public Health Agency of Canada refuses to disclose how it spied on Canadians during the pandemic

Canada’s health agency is facing criticism for extensive cellphone tracking initiatives but hides behind privacy laws to evade disclosure of what data they collected.

The Public Health Agency of Canada refuses to disclose how it spied on Canadians during the pandemic
The Canadian Press / Adrian Wyld
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Canada’s health agency is facing criticism for withholding thousands of pages of extensive cellphone tracking data under the Access To Information Act.

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) hid behind “commercial confidentiality” as the reason for not disclosing weekly reports derived from cellphone towers across the country throughout the pandemic, as reported by Blacklocks.

The agency “leveraged anonymized, population-aggregated, near real-time mobile device location data to estimate dynamic changes in population mobility patterns across the country,” asserting that “data contains only a unique device ID and there is no information pertaining to users themselves.”

While the agency withheld data under section 20.1 of the Act, unredacted information details that they tracked travel to elementary schools, airports, work and “most common day home locations.”

Topics included:

  • Where has time spent away from home changed?
  • How have trends in indoor gatherings changed across Canada?
  • Trends in non-residential mobility: travel to airports.

This spying initiative, undertaken under the guise of "stopping the spread of COVID-19," effectively infringed on the privacy of millions of mobile phone users.

The data was obtained unbeknownst to cellphone users, in the name of measuring compliance with lockdown orders from April 2020 to February 2022, at which point Members of Parliament voted to halt this invasive privacy violation.

Conservative MP John Brassard told the Commons that Canadians are “becoming increasingly concerned about the expansive overreach by the government.”

Likewise, New Democrat MP Matthew Green stated, “What may be considered legal is not always ethical… The fact many people learned about this program from news articles sets off alarm bells.”

Rebel News first broke the story based on a tender proposal listed on Public Services and Procurement Canada.

PHAC paid Telus nearly $200,000 to turn over users’ de-identified data, dating back to January 2019.

The agency is responsible for utilizing psychological operations to gain compliance with public health diktats throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC) investigated the agency's actions and recommended reforms to privacy laws around handling de-identified data, including the need to uphold transparency and accountability when dealing with third parties.

The OPC noted that other countries utilize “mobility data to analyze human mobility dynamics to inform decision-making.” Africa used de-identified and aggregated mobility data to fight Ebola; likewise, Brazil did so for Zika, and Mexico for swine flu.

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