Duclos, Tam called before ethics committee on mobile-phone data collection

The House of Commons Committee wants the health minister to explain what the Public Health Agency of Canada has collected from millions of mobile phones to understand how travel is progressing during the COVID-19 epidemic.

Opposition members in the committee feared the plague could be used to infringe on the secrets of Canadians who had no idea that a government agency was collecting data over the phone.

At an emergency meeting Thursday, the advisory committee issued a petition requesting Jean-Yves Duclos and Canadian health director Dr. Theresa Tam, to appear before them to answer questions on the process.

The house was still in the middle of the winter break but four opposition members in the committee called for an emergency meeting after the Public Health Agency issued a statement saying it wanted to increase the information collection process.

The Conservative, Bloc Québécois and NDP MPs on the committee complained about the secret results of the process.

In December, the Public Health Agency issued a new proposal to adhere to the provisions of the international platform between January 1, 2019 and May 31, 2023.

The notice states that the data must be accurate, accessible and timely, as well as confidential and transparent. All information must be deleted.

The petition was supposed to end before the legislators returned to Parliament after their fifth vacation but it is now being extended until Feb. 4, said John Brassard, a Conservative Ethics spokesman and committee member.

Brassard claims that data collection with the Public Health Agency raises many “flags” of privacy.

Speaking to the committee on Thursday, he said the Public Health Agency was “collecting information without the knowledge of Canadians, doing so in secret.”

The Ethics Committee calls on Duclos, Tam, for information during a pandemic. #CDNPoli # Covid19

“We need to be aware of the security measures in place to protect the privacy rights of Canadians,” he said.

The Public Health Agency said in a statement that it had notified the supervisor of the procedure, and had been advised by its privacy and ethics experts.

“Minister Duclos has also been in contact with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner and reaffirmed the commitment of PHAC to continue to protect and maintain the privacy of Canadian citizens and citizens and to ensure that Canada has the necessary information to understand and inform what we are doing in Canada.”

Greg Fergus, a Liberal member of the secret committee, said all members of the committee agreed “it is important to protect the privacy rights of Canadians.”

But he said the information was compact that was “modified to be non-personal so no information could be identified by the public.”

“It is unfair to say that we are following the people of Canada. This is not the case,” Fergus told the committee. “When we request anonymous data that cannot be personally identifiable it is only data.”

The Public Health Agency states that “by examining the nature of public health, we can better understand how people respond to health care.”

It also stated that in December 2020, it established a “private partnership” with a telecom user that expired in October 2021.

“PHAC is now launching a policy proposal as a way to improve data collection through an open and transparent process,” he said in a statement.

Brassard last week wrote to the minister of secrecy, Daniel Therrien, asking him to investigate the matter.

In a statement, the commission’s office said it had not yet opened its investigation. But it said, after receiving complaints of breach of secrecy, “it will turn to the methods we have chosen to know more about travel.”

In 2020, the Commissioner’s office published a document on secrecy and experiments in response to COVID-19 which warned organizations to be aware of the dangers of re-identifying anonymous information.

The government has not asked the Commissioner to provide specific advice if there are “adequate protections for re-identification,” it said.

“The government has relied on other experts to make this possible, which is their chance,” said the commissioner’s office.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on January 13, 2022.

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