Public and Privacy Policy Implications of PHAC’s Use of Mobility Information

Last week I appeared before the House of Commons’ Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy, and Ethics to testify about the public and private policy implications of PHAC’s use of mobility information since March 2020. I provided oral comments to the committee which were, substantially, a truncated version of the brief I submitted. If interested, my oral comments are available to download. What follows in this post is the content of the brief which was submitted.

Introduction

  1. I am a senior research associate at the Citizen Lab, Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy at the University of Toronto. My research explores the intersection of law, policy, and technology, and focuses on issues of national security, data security, and data privacy. While I submit these comments in a professional capacity they do not necessarily represent the full views of the Citizen Lab.
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Canadian Government’s Pandemic Data Collection Reveals Serious Privacy, Transparency, and Accountability Deficits

faceless multiethnic students in masks in subway train with phone
Photo by Keira Burton on Pexels.com

Just before Christmas, Swikar Oli published an article in the National Post that discussed how the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) obtained aggregated and anonymized mobility data for 33 million Canadians. From the story, we learn that the contract was awarded in March to TELUS, and that PHAC used the mobility data to “understand possible links between movement of populations within Canada and spread of COVID-19.”

Around the same time as the article was published, PHAC posted a notice of tender to continue collecting aggregated and anonymized mobility data that is associated with Canadian cellular devices. The contract would remain in place for several years and be used to continue providing mobility-related intelligence to PHAC.

Separate from either of these means of collecting data, PHAC has been also purchasing mobility data “… from companies who specialize in producing anonymized and aggregated mobility data based on location-based services that are embedded into various third-party apps on personal devices.” There has, also, been little discussion of PHAC’s collection and use of data from these kinds of third-parties, which tend to be advertising and data surveillance companies that consumers have no idea are collecting, repackaging, and monetizing their personal information.

There are, at first glance, at least four major issues that arise out of how PHAC has obtained and can use the aggregated and anonymized information to which they have had, and plan to have, access.

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The Limits of Tower Dump Privacy Protections in Canada

290822052_cccfe6d6ee_oOn January 14, 2016, the Ontario Superior Court ruled that “tower dumps” – the mass release of data collected by cellphone towers at the request of law enforcement agencies – violate privacy rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In response, Justice Sproat outlined a series of guidelines for authorities to adhere to when requesting tower dump warrants in the future.

I wrote about this case for PEN Canada. I began by summarizing the issue of the case and then proceeded to outline some of the highlights of Justice Sproat’s decision. The conclusion of the article focuses on the limits of that decision: it does not promote statutory reporting of tower dumps and thus Canadians will not learn how often such requests are made; it does not require notifying those affected by tower dumps; it does not mean Canadians will know if data collected in a tower dump is used in a subsequent process against them. Finally, the guidelines are not precedent-setting and so do not represent binding obligations on authorities requesting the relevant production orders.

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Photo credit: cell tower next to the casita by dasroofless (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/rGxgj

UVic, Google, and Trust Deficits

Google Streetview Bicycle DublinIn the wake of a stunning data breach the University of Victoria campus community could only hope that the institution would do everything it could to regain lost trust. One such opportunity arose this week, when controversial Google Streetview vehicles have been scheduled to canvas the campus. Unfortunately the opportunity was squandered: it is largely by accident that the campus community has – or will – learn that Google is capturing images and wireless access point information.

In this short post I want to discuss how seriously the University failed to disclose Google’s surveillance of the campus. I begin by providing a quick overview of Streetview’s privacy controversies. I then describe the serious data breach that UVic suffered earlier this year, which has left the institution with a significant trust deficit. A discussion of the institution’s failure to disclose Google’s presence to the community, and attempts to chill speech around Google’s presence, follows. I conclude by suggesting how institutions can learn from UVic’s failures and disclose the presence of controversial, potentially privacy invasive, actors in order to rebuild flagging trust deficits.

Google Streetview and Privacy

Streetview has been a controversial product since its inception. There were serious concerns as it captured images of people in sensitive places or engaged in indiscreet actions. Initially the company had a non-trivial means for individuals to remove images from the Google Streetview database. This process has subsequently been replaced with an option to blur sensitive information. Various jurisdictions have challenged Google’s conceptual and legal argument that taking images of public spaces with a Streetview vehicle are equivalent to a tourist taking pictures in a public space.

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Packet Headers and Privacy

One of the largest network vendors in the world is planning to offer their ISP partners an opportunity to modify HTTP headers to get ISPs into the advertising racket. Juniper Networks, which sells routers to ISPs, is partnering with Feeva, an advertising solutions company, to modify data packets’ header information so that the packets will include geographic information. These modified packets will be transmitted to any and all websites that the customer visits, and will see individuals receive targeted advertisements according to their geographical location. Effectively, Juniper’s proposal may see ISPs leverage their existing customer service information to modify customers’ data traffic for the purposes of enhancing the geographic relevance of online advertising. This poses an extreme danger to citizens’ locational and communicative privacy.

Should ISPs adopt Juniper’s add-on, we will be witnessing yet another instance of repugnant ‘innovation’ that ISPs are regularly demonstrating in their efforts to enhance their revenue streams. We have already seen them forcibly redirect customers’ DNS requests to ad-laden pages, provide (ineffective) ‘anti-infringement’ software to shield citizens from threats posed by three-strikes laws, and alter the payload content of data packets for advertising. After touching the payload – and oftentimes being burned by regulators – it seems as though the header is the next point of the packet that is to be modified in the sole interest of the ISPs and to the detriment of customers’ privacy.

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Apple and Locational Data Sharing

Apple’s entrance into the mobile advertising marketplace was born with their announcement of iAd. Alongside iAd comes persistent locational surveillance of Apple’s customers for the advantage of advertisers and Apple. The company’s advertising platform is controversial because Apple gives it a privileged position in their operating system, iOS4, and because the platform can draw on an iPhone’s locational awareness (using the phone’s GPS functionality) to deliver up targeted ads.

In this post I’m going to first give a brief background on iAd and some of the broader issues surrounding Apple’s deployment of their advertising platform. From there, I want to recap what Steve Jobs stated in a recent interview at the All Things Digital 8 concerning how Apple approaches locational surveillance through their mobile devices and then launch into an analysis of Apple’s recently changed terms of service for iOS4 devices as it relates to collecting, sharing, and retaining records on an iPhone’s geographic location. I’ll finish by noting that Apple may have inadvertently gotten itself into serious trouble as a result of its heavy-handed control of the iAd environment combined with modifying the privacy-related elements of their terms of service: Apple seems to have awoken the German data protection authorities. Hopefully the Germans can bring some transparency to a company regularly cloaked in secrecy.

Apple launched the iAd beta earlier this year and integrates the advertising platform into their mobile environment such that ads are seen within applications, and clicking on ads avoids taking individuals out of the particular applications that the customers are using. iAds can access core iOS4 functionality, including locational information, and can be coded using HTML 5 to provide rich advertising experiences. iAd was only made possible following Apple’s January acquisition of Quattro, a mobile advertising agency. Quattro was purchased after Apple was previously foiled in acquiring AdMob by Google last year (with the FTC recently citing iAd as a contributing reason why the Google transaction was permitted to go through). Ostensibly, the rich advertising from iAds is intended to help developers produce cheap and free applications for Apple’s mobile devices while retaining a long-term, ad-based, revenue stream. Arguably, with Apple taking a 40% cut of all advertising revenue and limiting access to the largest rich-media mobile platform in the world, advertising makes sense for their own bottom line and its just nice that they can ‘help’ developers along the way… Continue reading