The State of Privacy in Canada: No Transparency, No Accountability
Non-consensual sharing of location data between Telus and Canadian government shows desperate need for privacy law reform
JANUARY 11, 2022 — The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) recently admitted to the non-consensual use of the sensitive location data of 33 million Canadian mobile devices. The location data accessed by PHAC was collected through cellular towers and provided by Telus. This non-transparent use of the personal information of many Canadians is a clear sign that we desperately need to update Canada’s privacy laws. Without binding accountability and transparency provisions in public and private sector privacy laws, organizations PHAC and Telus are unconstrained in their ability to collect, use, and share the data of people in Canada.
Because the source of this location data is cellular towers — shared pieces of telecommunications infrastructure — affected individuals are not required to have installed any specific application on their phone, nor do they need to be associated with any service provider. While PHAC claims only disaggregated movement data that does not reveal the location of individual people in Canada was used, researchers have found inadequately treated data of this type can easily be reidentified and attached to particular individuals. It is unknown what measures or safeguards PHAC implemented to prevent this kind of re-identification.
PHAC told reporters they collected the data over a period of eight month in 2021 in order to track population movements in response to the pandemic. Recently, PHAC issued a request for proposal that seeks to continue collecting this kind of data for a period of up to five more years.
“It’s startling that we only found out about the collection and use of this sensitive location data after it had occurred,” said Bryan Short, a digital rights campaigner at OpenMedia. “That means, under our current privacy laws, there is no obligation for private companies like Telus or for government bodies like the Public Health Agency of Canada to seek consent, adequately safeguard, or even inform people about this kind of initiative.”
Short continued: “Asking people if they’re okay with private companies or government bodies tracking their location seems like the starting point. From there, we need to develop some accountability mechanisms to make sure it’s done safely.”
More than 10,000 members of the OpenMedia community have recently signed a petition to #DemandPrivacy through reform of Canada’s privacy laws from Justin Trudeau and the federal government.
OpenMedia works to keep the Internet open, affordable, and surveillance-free. We create community-driven campaigns to engage, educate, and empower people to safeguard the Internet.