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Alberta

Tim Hortons app violated privacy laws in collection of ‘vast amounts’ of sensitive location data

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People who downloaded the Tim Hortons app had their movements tracked and recorded every few minutes of every day, even when their app was not open, in violation of Canadian privacy laws, a joint investigation by federal and provincial privacy authorities has found.

The investigation concluded that Tim Hortons’ continual and vast collection of location information was not proportional to the benefits Tim Hortons may have hoped to gain from better targeted promotion of its coffee and other products.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, Commission d’accès à l’information du Québec, Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for British Columbia, and Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta issued their Report of Findings today.

The Tim Hortons app asked for permission to access the mobile device’s geolocation functions, but misled many users to believe information would only be accessed when the app was in use. In reality, the app tracked users as long as the device was on, continually collecting their location data.

The app also used location data to infer where users lived, where they worked, and whether they were travelling. It generated an “event” every time users entered or left a Tim Hortons competitor, a major sports venue, or their home or workplace.

The investigation uncovered that Tim Hortons continued to collect vast amounts of location data for a year after shelving plans to use it for targeted advertising, even though it had no legitimate need to do so.

The company says it only used aggregated location data in a limited way, to analyze user trends – for example, whether users switched to other coffee chains, and how users’ movements changed as the pandemic took hold.

While Tim Hortons stopped continually tracking users’ location in 2020, after the investigation was launched, that decision did not eliminate the risk of surveillance. The investigation found that Tim Hortons’ contract with an American third-party location services supplier contained language so vague and permissive that it would have allowed the company to sell “de-identified” location data for its own purposes.

There is a real risk that de-identified geolocation data could be re-identified. A research report by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada underscored how easily people can be identified by their movements.

Location data is highly sensitive because it can be used to infer where people live and work, reveal trips to medical clinics. It can be used to make deductions about religious beliefs, sexual preferences, social political affiliations and more.

Organizations must implement robust contractual safeguards to limit service providers’ use and disclosure of their app users’ information, including in de-identified form. Failure to do so could put those users at risk of having their data used by data aggregators in ways they never envisioned, including for detailed profiling.

The investigation also revealed that Tim Hortons lacked a robust privacy management program for the app, which would have allowed the company to identify and address many of the privacy contraventions the investigation found.

The four privacy authorities recommended that Tim Hortons:

  • Delete any remaining location data and direct third-party service providers to do the same;
  • Establish and maintain a privacy management program that: includes privacy impact assessments for the app and any other apps it launches; creates a process to ensure information collection is necessary and proportional to the privacy impacts identified;  ensures that privacy communications are consistent with, and adequately explain app-related practices; and
  • Report back with the details of measures it has taken to comply with the recommendations.

Tim Hortons agreed to implement the recommendations.

QUOTES

“Tim Hortons clearly crossed the line by amassing a huge amount of highly sensitive information about its customers. Following people’s movements every few minutes of every day was clearly an inappropriate form of surveillance. This case once again highlights the harms that can result from poorly designed technologies as well as the need for strong privacy laws to protect the rights of Canadians.”

Daniel Therrien, Privacy Commissioner of Canada

“This report eloquently illustrates the risks inherent in the use of geolocation and the importance of transparent and accountable privacy practices. Without a suitable prior assessment, Tim Hortons collected sensitive information about its customers through its app, without their adequate knowledge or consent. It is to put an end to this kind of practice that Quebec has reviewed its legislation protecting personal information giving more powers to the Commission and making companies more accountable. ”

Me Diane Poitras, president, Commission d’accès à l’information du Québec

“This investigation sends a strong message to organizations that you can’t spy on your customers just because it fits in your marketing strategy. Not only is this kind of collection of information a violation of the law, it is a complete breach of customers’ trust. The good news in this case is that Tim Hortons has agreed to follow the recommendations we set out, and I hope other organizations can learn from the results of this investigation.”

Michael McEvoy, Information and Privacy Commissioner for British Columbia

“This investigation is yet another example where an organization has not effectively notified customers about its practices. Tim Hortons’ customers did not have adequate information to consent to the location tracking that was actually occurring. When people download and use these types of apps, it’s important that they know in advance what will happen to their personal information and that organizations follow through with their commitments.”

Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta Jill Clayton

This is a news release from the Government of Alberta.

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Addictions

Alberta and opioids II: Marshall Smith’s ambitious campaign

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Marshall Smith. Photo: PW

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Alberta’s system builder

The Alberta model, made in BC

“I, as you know, have been everywhere in this field, from eating out of garbage cans to this office,” Marshall Smith said. “So I have a deep respect for everybody who works along that continuum.”

We were sitting in the office at the Alberta Legislature reserved for chiefs of staff to Alberta premiers. That’s Smith’s current job. Premier Danielle Smith was probably nearby, though I didn’t see her on this trip. On a shelf behind Marshall Smith were two coffee mugs of different design, each bearing the inscription WAKE UP. SAVE LIVES. REPEAT.

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Anyway, Marshall Smith (all future uses of “Smith” in this post will refer to him, unless I specify the premier) was talking about the continuum from dumpsters to the centre of power. “Where you work on that continuum obviously colours the way that you enter this conversation,” he said. “When you are standing on a sidewalk with a person in front of you, the solutions to that person’s problem look very different than what you might do to plan a broader system of care, for a large population of people.”

This was his way of anticipating criticisms he faces as a leading strategist behind Alberta’s emerging strategy for handling a deadly progression in opioid doses. Since he entered Alberta’s government as a more junior staffer in the government of former premier Jason Kenney in 2019, Smith has been working to put a much greater emphasis on recovery from addiction than on “harm reduction,” whose valuable goal is to keep drug users alive whether they recover or not. This makes him a bête noire among harm-reduction advocates. (You can read a mild critique of his efforts here; or a real scorcher here).

What Smith was saying was, in effect, If you work on the street, you’re going to be all about harm reduction, and I respect that. But he is working on drug policy for a whole province, and perhaps beyond, so he needs a broader perspective. “I’m a system builder. So I don’t have the luxury of just focusing on one particular substance. I have to worry about the whole population. I have to worry about the disease burden of addiction and drug use more broadly.”

He sees much to worry about. “Over the last 30 years in Canada, successive governments have failed miserably to anticipate and adequately address the type of services — both from a capital investment and an operating investment — to help people do this.” By “this,” he means escaping addiction. “We have not cared about people with mental health and addiction issues. And we had the ability to not care because up until the last six or seven years, the evidence of them was hidden away.”

Smith first started thinking about this when he was in British Columbia, where he began his recovery from a history of drug use. In 2018, at the BC Centre for Substance Use, Smith co-wrote a report with Dr. Evan Wood that called for a large new investment in facilities and programs to help people recover from addiction. The report is no longer on the BCCSU website, but you can download a copy here.

“It was a 39-point strategy to transform the system in British Columbia,” Smith recalled. “The government of British Columbia wasn’t interested in that strategy. They wanted to go a particular direction.

“So that report is now known as the Alberta model.”


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Marshall Smith in the dining hall of the Lakeview Recovery Community, opening in July. Photo: PW

In its first page, the Wood/Smith report said “British Columbia has long suffered because of the lack of an effective system to support individuals in and pursuing recovery from substance use disorders.” The system’s “overwhelming focus” was on keeping people alive rather than helping them get better. Wood and Smith wanted that to change.

The need for major new investments in addiction recovery was essentially uncontroversial in B.C. Indeed governments there still periodically announce they are making such investments. But Smith was perpetually unsatisfied with the scale of that commitment.

A year after BC’s new NDP government could-shouldered his report, Smith began working in the UCP government of Alberta’s then-new premier, Jason Kenney.

“Obviously we started off very modestly,” Smith said. “I worked in an office down in the basement. Mental health and addiction wasn’t a big deal. It really was very much a group of cubicles.”

Today, Alberta’s department of mental health and addiction is the seventh-largest ministry in the provincial government.

“The ROSC transformation that is going on in Alberta is massive. It is one of the most massive whole-of-government system transformations that I’ve seen,” Smith said. The premier chairs a ROSC committee of cabinet with seven ministers.

I guess I’d better unpack that acronym. ROSC stands for “recovery-oriented system of care,” a term that appeared in the 2018 report Smith co-wrote.

So you get the premier and her ministers of mental health and addiction, Indigenous relations, advanced education, health, community and social services, public safety and the attorney general meeting regularly to coordinate recovery policy. The premier’s chief of staff is on the file constantly. As I mentioned on Monday, he devoted a full day to explaining this broad effort to me.

“We spend enormous amounts of time and energy,” Smith said. “All of us live and breathe this. Anybody out there that thinks that we’re just, from a conservative perspective,  just cavalierly doing this, that just couldn’t be more untrue. We we are in this completely and totally. We monitor almost everything that goes on in the system.”

What are they working on? Smith said the “recovery” part of that “recovery-oriented system of care” jargon-ball gets most of the attention, because it draws attention to the contrast between harm-reduction and abstinence-based recovery models. But Smith is a wonk, and if anything he is more interested in the “system of care” part. His goal is to ensure that every interaction an opioid user has with the modern government apparatus is designed to encourage recovery from dependency. Since people who use drugs tend to bump up against the state a lot, Alberta’s emerging system has a lot of moving parts. The goal is to hook the parts up more effectively.

One of the other men in Smith’s office, Dr. Nathaniel Day, chimed in. He’s been the lead strategist on substance use at Alberta Health Services. He’s an important Smith collaborator.

“Across Canada,” he said, “the system of care for people with addiction has been fragmented, poorly thought out — convenient.” He meant services had generally only been provided when, and where, it was easy for government to provide them. “If you look at opioid dependency treatment, if you lived in a suburban or rural community, it didn’t matter that you had an opioid use disorder. Tough. We had no services for you.”

Day designed the Virtual Opioid Dependency Program, which provides online consultations to patients anywhere in Alberta, and if needed, prescriptions to medications that can be filled at local pharmacies. For patients without coverage, the medication is free and if their local pharmacist has it in stock, available on the day of the call.

“We went in and said, enough is enough,” Day said. “What would be good enough for you and your family? And how do we take that to everybody?”

Which medication? “In this province, we’re huge fans of gold-standard opioid-replacement medications, and we use it a lot,” Smith said. “We have Sublocade, which is something that other provinces don’t have because it’s very expensive. It’s the injectable version of Suboxone. It’s a subcutaneous injection, it goes under the skin, it lasts for 30 days, where the oral is 24-hour. So that’s a thousand bucks a shot, and we pay for that.”

An obvious point about this is that these so-called opioid agonist treatments, or OATs, are big-time harm reduction. They greatly reduce both withdrawal symptoms and highs. One question that I still have, after watching everything Smith and the Alberta government are doing on drug recovery, is whether other provinces could afford to match it.


Running into those institutions

VODP is useful for people who are able to reach out for help from home. But other potential beneficiaries are distracted, or in distress. Very often they run into the police.

“So we took that technology” — the virtual access to physicians and treatment — “and we gave it to the 34 police agencies that we have in the province,” Smith said.

“We said to the officers, ‘If you encounter somebody who has an opioid-use disorder, you can get them started on opioid-use medication. You can, officer. Here’s the phone number to call. Put them on. We make the arrangements. They go to the pharmacy, right then and there. If they’re on the street, that can be done right in the back of a police car.

“If they are in custody at the cell block and they go into the cell block, we have put paramedics in every cell block in Alberta. So the first thing that happens to somebody when they’re arrested and they go into into municipal cells, they’re met by a paramedic that says, ‘Let’s talk about your substance use. Are you an opioid user? We can offer you immediate treatment right now. Right here. Would you like to do that?’ Through our police programs, we’re probably up to like 4,000 people who have taken us up on that.”

That’s what you can get done in a police cruiser or a holding pen. Lots of people go much further into the correctional system than that. So does Smith’s system of care.

“[Alberta’s] focus on corrections and police right now, admittedly, is the opposite of what some other jurisdictions are focusing on,” Smith said. If anything this was an understatement. A major argument for decriminalization and safe supply is that the last thing a drug user needs is the stigma of a criminal record. Other jurisdictions, Smith said, “are running away from those institutions when they should be running into those institutions.

“I’ll give you a very direct example why.

“We know, from the 2017 coroner’s report in Alberta that 40 percent of the people who died [of opioid-related causes] were in custody in the year prior to their death. That’s a really important piece of information, because it tells me I have a big chunk of population there that — if I can get at them, and if we can change the way that they experience this process — we can make a big dent in these numbers.”

A lot of people in the correctional system have substance-use disorder, even if that’s not what they’re in for. “We said, ‘Let’s really do a different way of thinking on this,’” Smith said. “Even though Corrections is a public-safety agency, we want the Ministry of Mental Health and Addiction to take over all Corrections health care.”

Perhaps four in five detainees, he said, “have alcoholism, addiction and mental-health issues. They’re all pooled up in one place and they’re not doing anything. They’ve got nothing but time on their hands. And I don’t have to build a new building? You’re kidding me! This is fantastic! Why wouldn’t I just put therapists in? So we now have treatment programs inside correctional centers.”

Of course a lot of places do programs for inmates. “But what they’re going to show you when you unpack that is, ‘Well, we give them this workbook,’” Smith said. “What they’re not doing is the deep transformative, therapy work that is necessary. And honestly, Paul, our Therapeutic Living Units are probably the best treatment programs we have in Alberta.”

With that, we piled into Smith’s SUV — Smith, Day and the third member of Smith’s team that day, a physician and consultant named Dr. Paul Sobey. A half-hour later we arrived at the Fort Saskatchewan Correctional Centre, northeast of Edmonton.

Here we visited the Therapeutic Living Unit, a full-time addiction-recovery program for 21 women who are housed separately from the general inmate population. That’s about 10% of the total population of women at Fort Saskatchewan. The program opened in February. Participants, who must apply, run through a 12-hour daily program of activity: morning check-in meetings, physical exercise, twice-daily smudge ceremonies reflecting the large Indigenous population in the correctional system, frequent meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous as well as the more recently developed SMART Recovery system. Participants are rarely alone during daylight hours. The program is designed to last for months, which struck me as an unusually long time for a recovery program.

Four of the program’s participants sat on a sofa and talked about their experience in the program. “I’ve been wondering and wondering if a program like this was going to happen,” one said.

“It’s like an answered prayer, honestly,” said another. “So I would just encourage you to keep opening places like this.”

That’s the plan. “We’ve got 12 correctional centers in Alberta,” Smith told me before our road trip. “Our goal is to have Therapeutic Living Units [in all of them]. There will come a time where we have whole correctional centers that are working on this model, right? This requires massive intervention, not tinkering around the edges. This is generational change in the way that we do corrections in Alberta.”


Connections

All of the four young women we heard from said they’re nervous about what happens when they get out of detention. Old acquaintances can encourage a return to old habits. Which is part of the reason why Alberta is also building a network of live-in Recovery Communities, long-term residential rehab programs to reinforce the lessons learned in the TLUs — or to help other people begin recovery if they didn’t arrive via the correctional system.

Once the system is fully built in 2027, “every correctional centre will have a sister Recovery Community,” Smith said. “That’s why we’re building 11 of them around the province. Five of them are on First Nations, in partnership with the First Nations.”

Here’s where the system starts to look like a system. After all, in the broadest outlines nothing’s new here. People in prisons have long received addiction counselling, and the Alberta government and various private groups have long run rehabs. But for the longest time, these assorted parts of the system could barely talk to one another. So the chances of a seamless transition from the correctional system to recovery care were lousy. They’re still not great, because the system is still being built, but the goal is a seamless network of care.

“Services in 2018, 2019 were very disconnected,” Warren Driechel, the Edmonton Police Service deputy chief we met the other day, told me. The bureaucratic runaround that we all have to face can be brutal on people with high needs and impaired function. Say you want to get on AISH, an income-support program for people with a medical condition. To do that, you need a doctor’s appointment. To get one, you need identification. To get ID, you need an address.

Public officials are working to provide services that match that complexity.

In January 2021, the EPS launched a “HELP Unit” to refer people to social services instead of just arresting them.

In September 2023, the police replaced the old holding cells where intoxicated people could dry out and then get dumped back on the street with an Integrated Care Centre where they could connect with social services that operate right in the centre.

And in January 2024, after many of the tent encampments were dismantled, a new Navigation and Support Centre became the city’s hub for providing medical, legal and bureaucratic help for people who have often been bereft.

The Nav Centre has nine shelter beds in the back where people can rest, if needed, while on-site staff and volunteers process their files. (Pets are welcome, unlike in some of the city’s shelters.) The centre has the province’s only on-site Service Alberta photo-ID station. On the day I visited, the Nav Centre assisted 50 people, with 24 visiting the desk run by the Hope Mission, 10 being helped by staff from Radius Health, 12 by the provincial department of mental health and addiction.


Everything old is new

Our final stop was the Lakeview Recovery Community outside Gunn, northwest of Edmonton. When it opens in July, it’ll be the third or fourth in a network of such long-term residential programs. Lethbridge and Red Deer have been open for a while. The goal is to have 11 centres up and running across the province by 2027. Smith hopes that once the full network of centres is open, long wait times in Red Deer and Lethbridge will shrink, perhaps to the point where some beds will be available on-demand.

Each recovery community has its quirks. Lakeview will be for men only. Five of the centres will be on Indigenous land. The minimum stay will be four months, with some residents staying for up to a year. That’s a long stint for a rehab; in some private rehabs, it’s unusual to stay for even a month. In theory every day you spend with a combination of counselling, group therapy, twelve-step programs and medical care will increase your chances of success. No resident will pay for their stay at any recovery community. It’s covered by the government.

Work crews have been renovating the Lakeview site since 2022. It’s an impressive place, roomy and bright, with rooms where residents can meet visiting family, a huge kitchen where residents will learn cooking skills, and a dispensary for opioid agonist treatment. Residents will share bungalows while they’re in the program, five or six to a house.

But it didn’t just come into existence. What’s now Lakeview began its existence as the McCullough Centre for homeless World War II veterans. It had been operating for years as an addiction rehab centre when Jason Kenney’s government closed it in 2021. When the government announced the site’s eventual reopening barely a year later, observers were baffled. Closing the centre fit a narrative about a government that put the bottom line over Albertans’ wellbeing. Refurbishing and reopening it was.. harder to explain. Fitting it into a network of nearly a dozen such centres that will, themselves, be better connected to street-level services and to the corrections system… well, we’ll see, won’t we?

I’m conscious of ending this installment in my series on opioids in Alberta on an ambivalent note. I simply don’t know how this will turn out. My first article, earlier this week, was about the scale of the challenge. This one is about the scale of the response. It’s impressive. It’s getting attention across the country. Sobey, the physician who was the third member of our little party as we toured the region’s facilities, has a consulting firm whose aim is to design recovery-oriented systems of care to any government that wants to start the conversation. His phone pinged with an inquiry from another provincial government while we were visiting the Fort Saskatchewan prison. These ideas may come soon to a province near you.

What we don’t know yet is whether they’ll work, or how well. In the third and final installment in this series, I’ll discuss a few reasons to reserve judgment.

But what Alberta is trying is, in many ways, not heretical. Nobody thinks it’s great design to leave desperate people to wander helplessly thorugh a piecemeal hodge-podge of social services and treatment options, with police and corrections hovering over it all as an aloof menace. Smith, his boss the premier, and several government departments are trying to build a better system.

There is room for many devils in the details. But if federalism is supposed to be a laboratory for testing different approaches to thorny problems, Alberta is testing this approach ambitiously. Watching Marshall Smith, I found myself wondering what other intractable governance problems could benefit from the sustained attention of an empowered senior staffer, a supportive head of government, and ministers and public servants working in close coordination.

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Alberta

Innisfail RCMP police vehicle rammed by fleeing suspect

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News release from Innisfail RCMP

On June 5, 2024, at around 9:20 a.m.,  Innisfail RCMP responded to a complaint of a suspicious truck at the Ghost Pine store in Pine Lake. Witnesses suspected the occupants of the vehicle were using drugs.  RCMP located the vehicle and initiated a traffic stop.  When the RCMP officer was outside of his vehicle the suspect vehicle reversed at a high rate of speed.  The officer moved out of the way and was nearly hit; the suspect vehicle struck the RCMP vehicle causing significant damage. The vehicle sped away at a high rate of speed and has not been located.

The suspect vehicle is described as:

  • 2016 Ford F-150;
  • 4 door;
  • White,
  • Significant scratches all over the truck,
  • Alberta Licence plate CMN2779.

While RCMP continue their investigation we are asking for public assistance in locating the vehicle and identifying the driver.

Anyone with information about this vehicle or the driver are asked to call the Innisfail RCMP at 403-227-3342. If you wish to remain anonymous, you can contact Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477 (TIPS) online at www.P3Tips.com or by using the “P3 Tips” app available through the Apple App or Google Play Store. To report crime online, or for access to RCMP news and information, download the Alberta RCMP app through Apple or Google Play.

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