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Ethics committee summons Duclos, Tam on mobile-phone data collection during pandemic


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OTTAWA — The House of Commons ethics committee is calling on the health minister to explain the Public Health Agency of Canada’s collection of data from millions of mobile phones to understand travel patterns during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Opposition MPs on the committee fear the pandemic is being used to undermine the privacy of Canadians who were not aware that a government agency has been collecting mobile-phone data.

During an emergency meeting Thursday, the committee of MPs passed a motion asking Jean-Yves Duclos and Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, to appear before it to answer questions on the policy.

The House is still on its winter break but four opposition MPs on the committee asked for an emergency session after the Public Health Agency published a notice indicating it plans to extend the data-collection practice.

Conservative, Bloc Québécois and NDP MPs on the committee have raised concerns about the privacy implications of the policy.

In December, the Public Health Agency issued a new request for proposals to track countrywide cell tower-based location data between Jan. 1, 2019 and May 31, 2023.

The notice says the data must be accurate, accessible and timely, as well as ensuring privacy and transparency. It must be stripped of all identifying information.

The request for proposals had been due to end before MPs returned to Parliament after their winter break but has now been extended until Feb. 4, said John Brassard, Conservative ethics spokesman and a member of the committee.

Brassard has said the collection of data by the Public Health Agency raises numerous “red flags” about privacy.

Addressing the committee on Thursday, he said the Public Health Agency had been “collecting data without the knowledge of Canadians, effectively doing it in secret.”

“We need to know what security measures were in place to protect the privacy rights of Canadians,” he said.

The Public Health Agency said in a statement that it had informed the privacy commissioner about the process, and has been advised by its own privacy and ethics experts too.

“Minister Duclos has also been in communication with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner and has underlined PHAC’s ongoing commitment to protecting and preserving the privacy of citizens and people in Canada while ensuring that Canada has the data needed to understand and inform our ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the statement said.

Greg Fergus, a Liberal member of the privacy committee, said that all members of the committee agree it is “important to protect Canadians’ privacy rights.”

But he said that the information was aggregate data which had been “depersonalized so there is no information that can identify individuals.”

“It is unfair to say that we are tracking Canadians. That is not at all the case,” Fergus told the committee. “When we request depersonalized data that cannot identify a person it is simply data.”

The Public Health Agency said that “by analyzing population movement data, we can better understand the public’s responsiveness to public-health directives.”

It said that in December 2020, it established a “sole-source contract” with a telecom operator which expired in October 2021.

“PHAC is now launching a request for proposal process as a means to continue the collection of this data through an open and transparent process,” it said in a statement.

Brassard last week wrote to the privacy commissioner, Daniel Therrien, to ask him to investigate the matter.

In a statement, the commissioner’s office said it had not opened a formal investigation. But it said, after receiving complaints alleging violations of privacy, it would “turn our attention to the means chosen to deidentify the data mobility information.”

In 2020, the commissioner’s office published a document about privacy and initiatives in response to COVID-19 which cautioned institutions to be aware of the risk of reidentifying anonymized information.

The government did not ask the commissioner for specific advice about whether there were “adequate safeguards against reidentification,” it said.

“The government relied on other experts to that end, which is their prerogative,” the commissioner’s office said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 13, 2022.

Marie Woolf, The Canadian Press

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Judge decides ‘Freedom Convoy’ organizer Tamara Lich stays out on bail

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OTTAWA — Tamara Lich, a key organizer of the “Freedom Convoy” protest that gridlocked Ottawa for weeks, will remain released on bail while awaiting trial, a judge ruled Wednesday.

Ontario Superior Court Justice Kevin Phillips said he made his decision because she has followed her bail conditions, her surety has supervised her well and she’s already had a “taste of jail,” which he said lowered her risk to reoffend.

The judge said he does not accept that Lich breached her release conditions by agreeing to receive an award, and added Lich can be trusted to respect the conditions of her release.

She was released in March with a long list of conditions, including a ban from all social media and an order not to “support anything related to the Freedom Convoy.”

The terms of Lich’s release were intended to prevent a similar protest from happening in the national capital, the judge said, adding the court does not seek to control people’s political views.

“The courts are not a thought police. We seek only to control conduct to the extent that certain behaviour will violate or likely lead to violation of the law,” he said.

The protest is over and has left Ottawa, he said, adding it would be “practically impossible” to mount a similar protest in the city again.

Lich’s lawyer, Lawrence Greenspon, said in an interview Wednesday that he was pleased with the decision.

“She’ll be able to conduct her life in a lot more normal fashion as a result of the judge’s ruling,” said Greenspon.

Moiz Karimjee, a Crown prosecutor, said last week that Lich violated one of her bail conditions by agreeing to accept an award for her leadership during the Ottawa protest, and should be sent back behind bars to wait for her trial.

Greenspon argued last week her bail conditions should be loosened to allow her to come to Ontario and use social media.

He told the court that the social media ban imposed on Lich was unnecessarily broad and has had a huge impact on her life while she’s been out of custody.

However, Phillips said Wednesday the ban on Lich’s access to social media is warranted.

“Social media can be a problematic feedback loop where people get egged on and caught up in group activity they would never perform on their own,” he said.

Social media “undoubtedly contributed to and even drove” Lich’s conduct related to the protest, and her separation from it is necessary to lower her risk of reoffending, said Phillips.

Noting that Lich is in her late 40s, Phillips said she should be able to remember “how to use the social skills she surely built up before the advent of the internet.”

Lich is able to communicate by many other means, including email, phone or meeting in person, he said.

Greenspon said while he would have liked to see the social media ban reversed, “the most important thing was the rejection of the Crown’s efforts to to put her back in jail for agreeing to accept an award.”

The judge did amend her release conditions to allow her to visit Ottawa.

Lich’s motivation for coming to the city cannot be disclosed because it is under a court-ordered publication ban.

Phillips reiterated the high unlikelihood that Lich could organize an event resembling the convoy protest.

While she’s permitted to come to Ottawa, Lich is not allowed to visit the downtown core so as not “to walk around the very neighbourhoods she is alleged to have traumatized,” he said, except to attend court or meet with legal counsel.

Lich and fellow protest organizer Chris Barber are jointly accused of mischief, obstructing police, counselling others to commit mischief and intimidation.

The “Freedom Convoy” protest evolved into a weeks-long demonstration that congested the streets of Ottawa in February.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 25, 2022.


This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Erika Ibrahim, The Canadian Press

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Jail ‘Freedom Convoy’ organizer Tamara Lich again, Crown argues in Ottawa court

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By Laura Osman in Ottawa

The Crown is accusing “Freedom Convoy” organizer Tamara Lich of breaching her bail conditions and prosecutors argue she should go back to jail until her trial.

A judge initially denied Lich bail after her arrest during the massive protest that overtook downtown Ottawa for more than three weeks in February, but she was released in March after a review of the court decision.

She appeared virtually on Thursday in Ontario Superior Court, where lawyers wrangled over how the bail hearing should proceed.

Lich and fellow protest organizer Chris Barber are jointly accused of mischief, obstructing police, counselling others to commit mischief and intimidation.

She was released with a long list of conditions, including a ban from all social media and an order not to “support anything related to the Freedom Convoy.”

The Crown says Lich has violated one of her bail conditions by agreeing to accept a “freedom award” from the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, a legal advocacy group that supported the protest.

The organization planned to honour her at a gala celebration for inspiring “Canadians to exercise their Charter rights and freedoms by participating actively in the democratic process,” and leading the “Freedom Convoy” protest in Ottawa.

That protest evolved into a weeks-long demonstration that gridlocked the streets of Ottawa and eventually led the federal government to invoke the Emergencies Act in an effort to dislodge the participants.

“Ms. Lich has suffered for the cause of freedom by spending 18 days unjustly jailed, and exemplifies courage, determination and perseverance,” the organization wrote in a statement on its website, which the Crown included in its notice of application.

The website said Lich would attend the award dinner in Toronto on June 16, if a review of her bail conditions would allow her to attend, as well as events in Vancouver and Calgary.

The Toronto event is expected to include a keynote address by columnist Rex Murphy.

During the protest, Keith Wilson, a Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms lawyer, spoke on behalf of the convoy protesters at a news conference and described Lich as a client.

“Tamara Lich ought to be detained,” the Crown’s notice of application concludes.

Meanwhile, Lich’s lawyers plan to argue that her bail conditions are too restrictive and should be reconsidered.

Her lawyer, Lawrence Greenspon, told the court Thursday that the social media ban imposed on Lich was unnecessarily broad and has had a huge impact on her life while she’s been out of custody.

He said she wishes to be in contact with her 94-year-old grandmother by social media and communicate with her friends and family.

The hearing is expected to last two days.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 19, 2022.

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