Politics

MPs call for Commons committee probe of health agency's use of mobile data

Opposition MPs want the House of Commons ethics committee to investigate the Public Health Agency of Canada's decision to collect data from millions of mobile phones to understand travel patterns during the COVID-pandemic.

Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) has been collecting anonymous location data to help with COVID response

John Brassard responds to a question with fellow Conservative MP Pierre Paul-Hus during a news conference on the collection of mobile data by the Public Health Agency of Canada on Monday, January 10, 2022 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Opposition MPs want the House of Commons ethics committee to investigate the Public Health Agency of Canada's decision to collect data from millions of mobile phones to understand travel patterns during the COVID-pandemic.

Conservative and Bloc Québécois MPs say they want the committee to hold emergency meetings this month while the House of Commons is still on its holiday break because the agency is seeking to extend the practice.

Conservative MP John Brassard said the pandemic is being used as an excuse to undermine the privacy of Canadians who were not aware that a government agency has been collecting cellphone data.

The collection only came to light after the agency sought to extend the practice last month.

Brassard said it is "extremely alarming" that a government body would use the pandemic as an excuse to secretly collect the mobile data of Canadians without telling them. He said he wants to know what safeguards have been put in place to protect personal privacy.

A request for proposals issued Dec. 16 wants access to nationwide cell tower-based location data, stripped of personal identifiers, between Jan. 1, 2019 and May 31, 2023.

The notice says the data collection must be accurate, accessible and timely while ensuring privacy and transparency.

Last week, Brassard wrote to Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien to ask him to examine the matter. On Monday, he wrote to Conservative MP Pat Kelly, who chairs the Commons privacy committee, to ask for an emergency meeting.

Bloc ethics critic Rene Villemure wrote to Kelly Friday to request an emergency meeting on the same topic.

Villemure said the committee has the power to demand the request for proposals be suspended and to launch an inquiry into the affair to reassure Canadians about what is being done with their personal data.

In a media statement to CBC News, PHAC said analysis of "de-identified" — anonymous — mobility or location data helps inform policy, public health messaging, evaluation of measures and other aspects of the government's response to the pandemic.

"At every step, PHAC has consulted with 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 agency said.

"Note that PHAC will only use de-identified mobility or location data to understand population movement impacts on the trajectory of the pandemic," the agency said, adding this sort of population movement data can help predict risks to a particular geographic area and assess the effectiveness of pandemic measures based on how the population responds to public health guidance and directives.

With files from the CBC's John Paul Tasker

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