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Report, Government & politics, Technology & society, Citizen Lab, Munk School

Minding Your Business: A Critical Analysis of the Collection of De-identified Mobility Data and Its Use Under Socially Beneficial and Legitimate Business Exemptions in Canadian Privacy Law

The Government of Canada obtained de-identified and aggregated mobility data from private companies for the socially beneficial purpose of trying to understand and combat the spread of COVID-19. This collection began as early as March 2020, and the information was provided by Telus and BlueDot. It wasn’t until December 2021, after the government issued a request for proposals for cellular tower information that would extend the collection of mobility information, that the public became widely aware of the practice. Parliamentary meetings into the government’s collection of mobility data began shortly thereafter, and a key finding was that Canada’s existing privacy legislation is largely ineffective in managing the collection, use, and disclosure of data in a manner that recognizes the privacy rights of individuals. In spite of this finding, the federal government introduced Bill C-27: An Act to enact the Consumer Privacy Protection Act, the Personal Information and Data Protection Tribunal Act and the Artificial Intelligence and Data Act and to make consequential and related amendments to other Acts in June 2022 which, if passed into law, will fail to correct existing deficiencies in Canada’s federal commercial privacy law. In particular, Bill C-27 would make explicit that the government can continue collecting information, including mobility data from private organizations, so long as uses were socially beneficial and without clearly demarcating what will or will not constitute such uses in the future. This report, “Minding Your Business: A Critical Analysis of the Collection of De-identified Mobility Data and Its Use Under the Socially Beneficial and Legitimate Interest Exemptions in Canadian Privacy Law,” critically assesses the government’s existing practice of collecting mobility information for socially beneficial purposes as well as private organizations’ ability to collect and use personal information without first obtaining consent from individuals or providing them with knowledge of the commercial activities. It uses examples raised during the COVID-19 pandemic to propose 19 legislative amendments to Bill C-27. These amendments would enhance corporate and government accountability for the collection, use, and disclosure of information about Canadian residents and communities, including for so-called de-identified information.