The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) admitted to monitoring the movement of 33 million people by secretly accessing their geolocation through the country’s main phone company, according to Canada’s 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 Canada’s Post.

The health agency used the location data to assess the effectiveness of the encirclements and allow them to “understand possible links between movement of populations within Canada and spread of COVID-19,” he added.

In April 2020, the Canadian health agency entered into a contract with the country’s leading cell phone company, Telus, which according to its website, the data it shares with the government is non-identifiable and was used to support health authorities and academic researchers in helping reduce COVID-19 transmission without compromising the personal privacy of Canadians’.

The contract expired in October and since then, PHAC says it has ceased to have access to its citizens’ private data, however, the agency plans to extend the monitoring program for five more years.

PHAC released an announcement earlier this week soliciting contractors with access to ‘cell tower/operator location data for COVID-19 pandemic response and for other public health applications.’

The agency is requesting ‘de-identified cell tower location data from across Canada’ from January 2019 until May 31, 2023, with the possibility of three one-year extensions.

PHAC assures that users will have the ability to opt out of sharing their location with relevant apps and programs and given that the data is anonymized and obtained through the phone companies, the agency is confident that it is not violating any of Canadians’ privacy laws.

However, privacy advocates contend that what is shared anonymously can easily be identified later and that the Canadian government should be more transparent about what it does with people’s private data, for example, whether its location spying ultimately served the public good.

David Lyon, author of Pandemic Surveillance and former director of the Centre for Surveillance Studies at Queen’s University, opined that:

“The pandemic has created opportunities for a massive surveillance surge on many levels—not only for public health, but also for monitoring those working, shopping and learning from home.”

“Evidence is coming in from many sources, from countries around the world, that what was seen as a huge surveillance surge—post 9/11—is now completely upstaged by pandemic surveillance,” he added.

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