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COVID-19: Ottawa wants to know the location of phones until 2023

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Federal public health is looking for an entrepreneur who could provide it with “location data from cell phone towers and operators” to analyze population movements and thus “contribute to the response to the COVID-19 pandemic”.

The call for tenders published on December 17 is entitled “Operator-based location data and services for the analysis of public health mobility”. The contract is set to run until May 31, 2023, but could be extended for three years.

Ottawa wants to access the cell phone locations of at least 20% of the Canadian population in order to have good representativeness. This data should be provided “without interruption” and “as close as possible to real time”.

Reliable, current, and relevant public health and health data are essential for policy development, decision-making in public health emergencies, and improving long-term health outcomes for people. the Canadian population.

A quote from Anne Génier, spokesperson for Health Canada

Asked to give more details about this call for tenders, Health Canada indicates that this type of data collection has already taken place in recent months.

“Given the urgency of the pandemic, the Public Health Agency of Canada [ASPC] collected and used mobility data, such as location data from cell phone towers, throughout its response to COVID-19, spokeswoman Anne Génier explains, to determine if there are any links between population movements within Canada and the impact of COVID-19. “

This situational awareness also helped PHAC assess the effectiveness of public health restrictions imposed during the pandemic, through analysis of population movement data to better understand how the public responded during lockdown. .

A quote from Anne Génier, spokesperson for Health Canada

Privacy protected, assures Ottawa

The company that wins the contract will need to provide “privacy-friendly” data access. This information should be “anonymized” by the “removal of all personal identifiers” and the “possibility for users to easily opt out of the mobility data sharing program”.

“The Public Health Agency will not be able to identify or track people with this data,” assures its spokesperson. According to her, “there are no concerns under the Privacy Act.”

There are more than 34 million mobile phone subscriptions in the country, according to Statistics Canada. In 2020, 84.4% of Canadians owned a smartphone.

Two types of location data

The call for tenders specifies that there are two types of location data: those coming from the crowd (i.e. mobile applications on Android / iOS devices) and those from mobile phone towers / operators. (i.e. cellular service providers).

The government says it “needs continued access to cell phone operator data because it is the largest, most stable, and most representative sample of the Canadian population.”

Future use “for other public health applications”

Ottawa explains that “beyond the pandemic, mobility data will play an important role in understanding the impact of population movements on other public health challenges”.

The tender states that the government “will keep data resulting from requests for future public health uses in a secure environment.”

Spokeswoman Anne Génier adds that “based on its experience with COVID-19 and lessons learned from that of other countries, the Public Health Agency intends to build up a long-term supply of data on mobility from cell phone towers to advance initiatives focused on public health issues, such as other infectious diseases, chronic disease prevention and mental health ”.

Last year, the federal government launched an app called COVID Alert that let Canadians know if they had been close to someone who tested positive. This program did not use geolocation, but rather Bluetooth technology so that the devices communicate with each other.

Cautious experts and opposition

“This requires in-depth analysis and reflection,” believes Bloc Québécois MP Stéphane Bergeron.

Would the proposed remedy be more damaging than the disease itself?

A quote from Stéphane Bergeron, Member of the Bloc Québécois

EVA Technologies’ specialist in information technology and security, Eric D. Tremblay, fears that the use of raw data from cell towers will not allow cell phone users to exclude themselves.

Also, the expert thinks that this use of data could make it possible “to trace affiliation links between individuals”.

François Daigle, vice-president, professional services, of Okiok, a cybersecurity firm qualifies this initiative as “serious invasion of privacy, a serious problem of social acceptability”. He “seriously doubts that this is a case where the end justifies the means.”

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