A woman looks down at her cell phone while walking though downtown Toronto, on Tuesday, June 12, 2018. A House of Commons committee says the federal government needs to tell Canadians if it’s collecting data about their movements, and allow them to opt out of that collection. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

A woman looks down at her cell phone while walking though downtown Toronto, on Tuesday, June 12, 2018. A House of Commons committee says the federal government needs to tell Canadians if it’s collecting data about their movements, and allow them to opt out of that collection. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Ethics committee says government must tell Canadians it’s tracking their movements

Public Health Agency of Canada used data from cell towers to track 33 million mobile devices

A House of Commons committee says the federal government needs to tell Canadians if it’s collecting data about their movements, and allow them to opt out of that collection.

Those are some of the recommendations made by the ethics committee, which started looking into the issue back in January after public outcry about the federal health agency’s secret collection of data from cell providers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Public Health Agency of Canada used data from cell towers to track 33 million mobile devices as a way to assess “population mobility patterns” during pandemic lockdowns, and issued a tender in December to continue tracking location data until May 31, 2023.

The committee said the government should notify people about these programs “in a manner that clearly outlines the nature and purpose of the data collection.”

It’s also calling for changes to privacy laws so that de-identified information and aggregate data are considered personal information, subject to privacy protections.

PHAC has previously said location data from cellphone towers would be stripped of personal identifiers, and that it’s taken advice from privacy and ethics experts, including the privacy commissioner.

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