The Public Health Agency of Canada monitored some 33 million mobile devices to keep track of people’s movements during the COVID-19 pandemic’s lockdowns, according to the National Post.
“Due to the urgency of the pandemic, (PHAC) collected and used mobility data, such as cell-tower location data, throughout the COVID-19 response,” a spokesperson told National Post in a story Friday.
The agency’s program, which was brought to light in a story on the members-only news site Blacklock’s Report Dec. 21, was used to track the population’s movements through their mobile device activity during that nation’s pandemic lockdowns to see how effective the restrictions were, according to the story.
“(The data helped the agency) understand possible links between movement of populations within Canada and spread of COVID-19,” the spokesperson told the publication.
According to the National Post report, the agency contracted with the technological TELUS firm’s Data for Good program in March, asking for “de-identified and aggregated data” of movement trends in the population until the contract ended in October.
TELUS is a technology company providing wireless, data, IP, voice, television, entertainment, video and security, healthcare, and agriculture, on a 5G network that reaches 99% of the country’s 38 million residents, according to the company.
Although the agency has not had access to location data since the contract expired, the spokesman told the Post that it plans on tracking the citizens for five years as other health issues arise.
Privacy activists told the Post that they are concerned over the revelation and the possible long-term implications of such surveillance.
“I think that the Canadian public will find out about many other such unauthorized surveillance initiatives before the pandemic is over — and afterwards,” David Lyon, author of Pandemic Surveillance and former director of the Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen’s University, said in an email to the Post.
As the omicron variant of COVID-19 rapidly spreads in countries throughout the world, Canada has seen 105,314 new cases in the last week, averaging 15,045 per day and 113 deaths during the week, according to the country’s COVID dashboard website.
The location data collected by the healthy agency showed a 0.4% increase in people’s mobility during the last week.
According to the agency, the metric shows the amount of movement in the population compared to the prior week.
The data comes from location-based services embedded into third-party applications on personal devices, and only show the movement pf “large populations.”
It said that it cannot determine an individual’s movement if they did not have Wi-Fi or a GPS enabled device, and that the data cannot determine if the person is following other public health measures such as masking or social distancing.
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