Politics

Committee to probe agency’s use of Canadians’ cellphone data

The House of Commons’ Ethics committee has called on the federal Health minister and chief public health officer to testify about a plan to continue giving Canada’s health agency access to Canadians’ mobility data to help manage the pandemic.

A second motion to suspend the proposal is still before the committee, which met on Thursday after four MPs requested that it meet to discuss a motion from Conservative Ethics critic John Brassard. The motion asked that Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos and Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam testify about the plan.

“It becomes increasingly concerning that government is seemingly using this pandemic as a means and a cause for massive overreach into the privacy rights of Canadians,” Brassard said Thursday. “As parliamentarians, it’s incumbent upon us to make sure that we protect those rights, (and) that there is proper scrutiny and oversight.”

In March, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) awarded a contract, which has since expired, to the Telus Data For Good program to provide “de-identified and aggregated data” of Canadians’ movement trends, which it collected from 33 million mobile devices.

The program to monitor people’s movements during lockdowns was uncovered by Blacklock’s Reporter.

In a new request for proposal (RFP) posted last month, PHAC invited pitches from contractors with access to location information from cellphone towers across Canada covering the period of January 2019 to May 31, 2023.

The request appeared on Dec. 17, the day before Parliament rose for a six-week winter recess. It was set to expire on Jan. 21, just 10 days before the House returns from its winter recess, but, on Wednesday, PHAC suddenly amended the proposal to expire instead on Feb. 4.

READ MORE: Tory critic slams PHAC’s secret collection of Canadians’ data

The committee must examine: PHAC’c contracts; whether the identity of individual Canadians is adequately protected; the extent to which the privacy commissioner was consulted; and why the RFP was made when Parliament had no opportunity to scrutinize it, Brassard said.

His motion passed unanimously.

Bloc Québécois MP René Villemure then put forward a second motion requesting that the RFP be suspended until the committee can study it further.

Information is still missing, Villemure said, and the request doesn’t have to be cancelled; it can just be suspended until the committee knows more.

“The clock is ticking, with regards to the RFP,” he said in French.

Liberal MP Iqra Khalid said it would be premature to suspend the RFP, which PHAC has delayed by two weeks.

“I don’t think we have a clear understanding” of how it will affect Canadian’s privacy, she said.

Meanwhile, the data is being used to create pandemic-safety plans for cities, Khalid said.

But New Democrat MP Matthew Green said Villemure’s motion is an important and “obvious” next step, while Brassard agreed it must be delayed until there’s confidence the data won’t be compromised.

The committee will continue debating Villemure’s motion at its next meeting.

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