Canada’s Health Agency Collected Data From 33 Million Cellphones to Inform Pandemic Policies

By Noé Chartier
Noé Chartier
Noé Chartier
Noé Chartier is an Epoch Times reporter based in Montreal.
December 21, 2021 Updated: January 15, 2022

Canada’s federal health agency has been using cellphone data to track the anonymized movements of Canadians since the onset of the pandemic in order to inform policy and public messaging, and it intends to continue the practice after the COVID-19 crisis is over.

Reported by Blacklock’s on Dec. 21, the news was confirmed by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) in an emailed statement to The Epoch Times.

“Due to the urgency of the pandemic, [PHAC] collected and used mobility data, such as cell-tower location data, throughout the COVID-19 response to help understand possible links between the movement of populations within Canada and COVID-19 impacts,” the statement said.

The agency said it used the data to measure the public’s responsiveness to lockdowns, and the information was regularly shared with provinces and territories to help them in their policy decisions.

PHAC said it’s the first time it has used mobility data in its public health analysis, but it intends to continue the practice post-pandemic and apply it to “challenges including other infectious diseases, chronic disease prevention, and mental health.”

On Dec. 16, the agency issued a request for proposal (RFP) to enlist the services of a contractor to help establish access to cellphone “processed data with no interruption.”

These analyses and findings provide situational awareness and help inform policy, public health messaging, evaluation of public health measures, and other aspects related to public health response, programming, planning and preparedness,” the RFP says.

While the pandemic first reached Canada in late January 2020, PHAC is seeking access to location data beginning in Jan. 1, 2019, until the end of the contract in May 2023, with the option to extend it for three years to 2026.

A cellphone can be tracked in different ways, such as by triangulating its signal that connects, or “pings,” to cell towers in its proximity. It can also be tracked through mobile apps that use location services, which can combine GPS, cell-tower triangulation, and Wi-Fi data. These services then sell the acquired information to data aggregation and marketing companies.

Blacklock’s reported that PHAC tracked 33 million mobile devices via cell-tower locators.

The issue of companies like Environics Analytics and Drako Media using cellphone data to track people’s movements during the pandemic has been reported in the media. And tech giant Google has been sharing anonymized and aggregated worldwide user location data in its COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports since April 2020.

PHAC says in its RFP that it requires access to cell-tower data, since it provides the “most stable and representative sample of the Canadian population.”

Privacy Concerns

PHAC says that it will not be able to identify or track individuals with the data and that it consulted its privacy management division in the development of the RFP.

Valerie Lawton, communications director at the Office of the Privacy Commissioner, said the office is aware of the media reports about the RFP and is seeking information from PHAC regarding the initiative.

The RFP stipulates that the contractor must provide access to de-identified cell-tower-based location data, to protect the privacy of cellphone users, and must also give users the ability to easily opt out of PHAC’s mobility data sharing program.

When asked whether PHAC would make the public aware of the program and the fact that people have the right to refuse to participate, PHAC replied in an email that this is “the responsibility of the winning contractor” and did not indicate whether the agency itself would notify the public.

Concerning the data previously used for its mobility analysis, PHAC said, “In response to a departmental callout for support early in the COVID-19 response, mobility data was offered through Innovation, Science, and Economic Development’s Communication Research Centre (CRC).”

To “expand on this work,” PHAC said it had also established a sole-source contract with  Telus’s Data for Good program in March 2021, which expired Oct. 8, 2021.

PHAC said that it no longer has access to the Telus data, which was also de-identified and aggregated to protect privacy, and that “any contract awarded through this RFP will have clearly defined data retention and destruction policies.”

University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab released a report in September on how the pandemic has affected people’s privacy. While the report did not address PHAC’s mobility tracking, it did look at the agency’s mandate.

“Under PHAC’s extensive mandate and given that the Privacy Act is highly permissive in enabling government organizations to collect, use, and disclose personal information when doing so is directly related to one of the organization’s operational activities, almost any collection of personal information in a pandemic situation would relate directly to PHAC’s public health mandate,” says the report, titled “Pandemic Privacy.”

The report says PHAC’s mandate and the regulation-making power for the minister “collectively create a powerful data-collection capability at the federal level with few explicit safeguards.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in March 2020 that tracking cellphone users was not being considered.

“I think we recognize that in an emergency situation we need to take certain steps that wouldn’t be taken in non-emergency situations. But as far as I know, that is not a situation we’re looking at right now,” he said in a media briefing.

He added, however, that “all options are on the table to do what is necessary to keep Canadians safe in these exceptional times.”

This article was updated on Dec. 22 to add new information provided by PHAC.

Noé Chartier is an Epoch Times reporter based in Montreal.