Health agency tracked Canadians’ trips to liquor store via phones during pandemic

The report reveals PHAC was able to view a detailed snapshot of people’s behaviour, including grocery store visits, gatherings with family and friends, time spent at home and trips

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OTTAWA — Canadians’ movements, including trips to the liquor store and pharmacy, were closely tracked via their mobile phones without their knowledge during the COVID-19 pandemic, a report sent to a parliamentary committee shows.

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Outbreak intelligence analysts BlueDot prepared reports using anonymized data for the Public Health Agency of Canada to help it understand travel patterns during the pandemic.

The federal government provided one of these reports to the House of Commons ethics committee as it probed the collection and use of mobile phone data by the public health agency.

The report reveals the agency was able to view a detailed snapshot of people’s behaviour, including visits to the grocery store, gatherings with family and friends, time spent at home and trips to other towns and provinces.

MPs on the ethics committee expressed surprise at how much detail the report contained, even as all identifying information was stripped out.

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“Questions remain about the specifics of the data provided if Canadians’ rights were violated, and what advice the Liberal government was given,” said Damien Kurek, Conservative MP for Battle River-Crowfoot.

The committee on Wednesday released a report on its overall probe into the agency’s collection of phone data during the pandemic. It concluded the government should tell Canadians if it collects data about their movements and allow them to opt out.

The Public Health Agency said it took safeguarding Canadians’ privacy very seriously and the analysis on Canadians’ movements it received “is not about following individuals’ trips to a specific location, but rather in understanding whether the number of visits to specific locations have increased or decreased over time.”

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“For example, point-of-interest data from BlueDot identifies the number of visits to grocery stores, parks, liquor stores and hospitals,” a spokesman said. “All we receive is the location of the point of interest and the number of visits for a specific day.”

Adam van Koeverden, parliamentary secretary to the minister of health, sent the sample BlueDot report to the ethics committee on Jan. 31. It covers movements in September 2021.

The report provides information on how many people were moving between specific towns, such as the border community of Abbotsford, B.C., as well as provinces and territories. It shows movements across the Canada-U.S. border, comparing travel to previous weeks and years going back to 2019.

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The phone locations allowed the agency to get a picture of gatherings occurring in people’s houses, such as over the Labour Day weekend. The report included a graph recording hours spent away from home in each province between Christmas Day 2020 to the week of Sept. 19, 2021.

Kamran Khan, founder and CEO of BlueDot, said the company’s role is to produce “infectious disease insights,” not to collect location data directly from mobile devices.

He said BlueDot has no interest in the movements or lifestyles of individuals.

“Our only goal is to help protect lives and livelihoods from infectious diseases, which requires intelligence about overall trends in populations,” he said.

The company procured anonymous and aggregated data from third-party vendors so there was no information about the specific device the data came from.

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“None of the information ever includes demographic information or specific identifiers or anything like a name, telephone number, email or address,” he said.

“The data and analysis that we do provide are indicators: statistical su
mmaries of anonymous device information, such as the total number of devices travelling between two cities.”

The public health agency gave The Canadian Press an example of the way the data is presented to them, showing addresses of beer and liquor stores, the number of visits and the date the visits occurred. It included no names or identifying personal information.

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Karen J. Simmons

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