Politics

Tory critic slams PHAC’s secret collection of Canadians’ data

Instead of measuring the effectiveness of lockdowns by secretly collecting Canadians’ personal data, Canada’s health agency should be focused on ending pandemic lockdowns, says the Conservative critic for ethics and accountable government.

Tory MP John Brassard is raising the alarm after the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) admitted to accessing the location data from 33 million mobile devices. The program to monitor people’s movements during lockdowns was uncovered by Blacklock’s Reporter.

Brassard questioned how the information is helping Canada’s pandemic response, given that provinces are implementing restrictions for a fifth time, despite the data collection.

“Rather than this, maybe we should be focusing more on an exit strategy (for) how we’re going to return to some sense of normalcy, (and) how we’re going to open up our economy,” Brassard told iPolitics.

“I would be more interested in how (PHAC) is going to (prevent) further lockdowns and restrictions.”

The newest clampdowns are meant to keep hospitals and their intensive-care units from being overwhelmed by COVID patients.

While Ottawa has given the provinces $4 billion, in addition to the $42 billion that Ottawa gives the provinces every year to help them pay their health-care costs, about $500 billion was spent on pandemic programs “(that) keep people locked down,” Brassard said.

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The provinces need more money to increase hospital capacity, and the federal government failed to anticipate that need, he said.

Although PHAC might be gleaning something useful from the data, no one would know how it’s being used unless Parliament reviews the request for proposals and what it seeks to accomplish.

In a request posted last month, PHAC invited proposals 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 expires on Jan. 21 — 10 days before the House returns from its winter recess, “conveniently leaving no time during this period for questions to be asked by parliamentarians,” Brassard said.

The request was made after PHAC collected data from 33 million mobile devices. In March, the agency 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.

Over the course of the pandemic, PHAC has used de-identified and aggregated data to inform the government’s COVID response, an agency spokesperson told iPolitics.

That work continues with the plan to buy location data from cellphone-service providers, Anne Génier said in an email, adding that contractors must provide pre-processed data from which personal identifiers are removed.

With the Bloc Québécois’ support, Conservatives on the House of Commons Ethics committee want an emergency hearing to investigate the data collection.

It is vital that we do not allow the COVID response to create a permanent backslide on the rights and freedoms of Canadians, including their fundamental right to privacy,” Brassard told reporters in Ottawa on Monday.

The data collection isn’t being run past Canadians’ representatives in Parliament, said Jay Cameron, litigation director at the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, a Canadian legal advocacy group that takes a socially conservative approach to Canadian constitutional law.

Privacy and public safety should go hand in hand, as opposed to privacy sacrificed in the name of public safety, he said.

“We’re concerned, just like many other people are concerned, that Canadians are going to wake up too late and realize that the Canada of their childhood is long gone,” he told iPolitics. “And in its place is an authoritarian surveillance state which far more closely resembles China’s repressive dictatorship than a free and democratic western society.”

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Everyone should be wary of government surveillance and overreach that threatens their Charter rights, Brassard said.

“Once that genie is let out of the bottle and we start seeing that expansion of government intrusion into the civil rights and liberties of Canadians, it’s awfully hard to bring that back.”

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