COVID-19: Toronto mayor sparks debate on possible use of cellphone data for infection detection

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across Canada, a brief remark by Toronto Mayor John Tory has opened an emotional discussion on whether smartphone data can or should be used to help monitor people and check the spread of the disease.

Canada hasn’t reached a crisis point yet where such actions are needed, but experts say the options need to be debated.

The discussion started late Monday during an online video-conference event where Tory suggested a carrier or carriers are giving the city something. The news website The Logic quoted Tory saying, “we had the cellphone companies give us all the data pinging off their network on the weekend so we could see where were people still congregating.” That data will be used to generate a heat map, he added, presumably so authorities could go and warn, or text, people there to disperse.

He didn’t make it clear what the city was allegedly getting from “all the data”. Cellphones regularly ping the nearest cell tower. The data from that ping would include the general location of the device, its phone number but not the name or address of the owner.

But privacy experts worry that by combining location data with other publicly-available data, like home addresses, individuals can be identified unless data is anonymized.

It may not matter because on Tuesday, Tory’s spokesperson told reporters the mayor was referring to an offer to share anonymous information. A city spokesman later put out a statement saying “The city of Toronto will not be using cellphone location data, nor does it have such data, to determine where people are not practising physical distancing,”

However, the issue was hot enough that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked on Tuesday if Canada would follow the example of some countries to use telecom data to track people’s compliance with pandemic measures. He left the door open but didn’t specify what steps would be taken.

“I think we recognize that in an emergency situation we need to take certain steps that wouldn’t be taken in non-emergency situations, but as far as I know, that is not a situation we’re looking at right now,” he said.

That drew a stinging tweet from privacy expert Ann Cavoukian: “Totally unacceptable! Trudeau intends to use our cellphone data to track CoVid 19? … This will be the beginning of mounting surveillance, which will cripple our freedom — to which we say, NO!”

According to the CBC, telecommunication companies in Italy, Germany and Austria are now sharing aggregate smartphone data with health authorities to monitor whether people are complying with assembly rules. China, Taiwan and South Korea are using smartphone location pings to trace individuals who have tested positive, or to enforce quarantine orders, says the CBC.

How far Canadian governments should go in a crisis isn’t clear.

“It’s really important not to indulge in knee-jerk reactions against leveraging data technology to surveil disease,” the Toronto Star quoted Brenda McPhail, the director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s privacy, law and surveillance project.”But we need to be realistic about where more data collection actually supports accountable decision making, and where it will hurt human rights and more fundamentally human dignity.

“There are a lot of ways that data-driven surveillance can cross that line between necessary and helpful to disproportionate … Is it untargeted? Is it indiscriminate? Is it inappropriately constrained?”

The Star quoted Christopher Parsons of the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, who researches surveillance technology and methods and argues there are better, low-tech ways to discourage gatherings of people as a way of COVID-19 control.

An opinion piece in the Globe and Mail on Monday by Michael Wolfson, a member of the Centre for Health Law, Policy and Ethics at the University of Ottawa, noted developers are trying to create smartphone apps that use data analytics to track the pandemic in real-time. One idea is the app turns red for those who test positive for COVID-19. Their movements are restricted. People who are immune have their apps turn green. One logistical flaw is this idea means regular testing of the entire country.

Any solution may need to meet privacy obligations under the Charter of Rights and federal and provincial privacy laws. But as Wolfson points out there may be a real need to identify new clusters of infection fast.

Michael Geist, Canada research chair in internet and e-commerce law at the University of Ottawa, wrote this week that there are three types of data that could help identify such trends: Aggregated data from many sources including cellphones that don’t include personally-identifiable data, location data of those supposed to be in quarantine to make sure they stay put, and location data of those in quarantine and used to warn others they may be close to someone at risk.

If governments have to get tough, Geists says safeguards will be necessary including limits on data retention, an obligation that the data be used only for public health purposes and a restriction on data disclosure — plus oversight by the federal privacy commissioner and penalties.

Canadian telecom analyst Mark Goldberg agreed that technology should be used to battle the spread.

“These are extraordinary times and we have seen the government impose temporary regulations that infringe on certain freedoms (such as mobility, right to congregate, etc.) due to the nature of this public health state of emergency,” Goldberg told IT World in an email. “With appropriate oversight and consideration for balancing our privacy rights against the real opportunity and potential to save lives, I think most Canadians would want our government to leverage every tool and technology at their disposal in the battle against the spread of this virus.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@]

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