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Local MP worried health agency's use of cellphone data infringes on privacy rights

'There’s been a pattern of overreach on the part of governments,' says Brassard, who is also the ethics critic

A Barrie MP’s concern over cellphone data collected from millions of Canadians during the pandemic may put the brakes on the process, at least temporarily.

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) collected and used mobility data from 33 million devices. The practice came to light when it issued a request for proposal last month to continue collecting the data.

Barrie-Innisfil MP John Brassard, the Conservative ethics and accountable government critic, said plans to continue “secret” collection of information raises red flags.

On Thursday, he asked the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics to examine the practice and call the current and former health minister to testify. The committee will next debate a new motion to temporarily halt a request for proposal issued by the PHAC to continue the collection of information.

“Whether it was done in a manner that was safe and secure to prevent the re-identification of Canadians’ mobility data in the past, we don’t know that. And part of this committee’s work is to get to the bottom of it,” Brassard told the committee at the meeting live-streamed over the ParlVu platform on Thursday. “I know there have been significant concerns about those who know about this.”

Following yesterday’s meeting, Brassard said he’s concerned that the data, collected as anonymous, can later be re-identified.

“There’s been a pattern of overreach on the part of governments. It’s not just the Canadian government, governments around the world, and infringing on protection of privacy and the use of data,” he said.

The Conservative MP is concerned that Canada and other countries are using the pandemic as a way to justify what would normally be considered the intrusion of privacy rights.

Brassard had earlier asked the federal privacy commissioner to probe the government’s role in the collection of mobile data of millions of Canadians during the pandemic and its plans to continue for five years.

“It’s even worse when a government or government body does it in secret,” Brassard wrote in a letter addressed to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, requesting an investigation. “It is vital that we do not allow the COVID-19 response to create a permanent backslide of the rights and freedoms of Canadians, including their fundamental right to privacy.”

He said there is a need for proper oversight for any program, that the data be rendered permanently unidentifiable and that it is collected for only as long as is necessary.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada indicated Thursday that it's examining the complaints received and a formal investigation has not yet been launched.

The health agency has been using mobility data throughout the pandemic to evaluate the impact of pandemic emergency measures on the spread of COVID-19.

But Brassard argues there are ways that are not as intrusive upon people's privacy to gather the same information.

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About the Author: Marg. Bruineman

Marg. Bruineman is an award-winning journalist who focuses on justice issues and human interest stories
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