City of Toronto gathering cellphone location data from telecoms in bid to slow spread of COVID-19: Tory

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Update: Toronto Mayor John Tory has retracted his claims the city is collecting location data from cellphones as part of its fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Read The Logic‘s most recent story here.

The City of Toronto is obtaining cellphone data from wireless carriers to help it identify where people have assembled in groups, part of its attempts to slow the spread of COVID-19, Mayor John Tory said on Monday. But city staff said Tuesday morning the city doesn’t plan to collect such data.

“We had … the cellphone companies give us all the data on the pinging off their network on the weekend so we could see, ‘Where were people still congregating?’” Tory said during an online video-conferencing event Monday evening hosted by TechTO, a local meetup organization. “Because the biggest enemy of fighting this thing is people congregating close together.”

Tory said the data will be used to generate a heat map. He did not name the companies that had provided the city with data. 

“The Mayor was referencing an offer to share totally anonymous cellphone location information with the City to help explain where people were congregating together in large groups over the weekend to help Toronto Public Health as it works to further encourage social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” said Don Peat, Tory’s executive director of communications. “The Mayor passed along the offer of anonymous data this morning to Toronto Public Health and the Emergency Operations Centre to see if it could help in our efforts to confront the pandemic and save lives.” 

During the TechTO event, Tory described the data collection as “something we’re doing now,” adding that he wasn’t sure whether the data would make a significant difference, “but I asked for it, and I’m getting it.”  

Peat directed a question about whether the city had already received any data to City of Toronto staff.

The city “is not in possession of such data, nor will it acquire such data,” said Brad Ross, chief communications officer for the City of Toronto, via email on Tuesday morning. Asked to explain Tory’s remarks at TechTO on Monday night, he directed The Logic to Peat. “We have nothing further to say beyond the City’s statement,” Peat said in an email on Tuesday morning.

Peat did not directly reply to The Logic’s questions about which telecoms were involved or whether the city consulted the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario before making the request.

“We have not been contacted by the City of Toronto,” said Richard Gilhooley, a Telus spokesperson.  On Tuesday morning, Rogers said it was not one of the companies to whom Tory was referring. Bell and Shaw, which owns Freedom Mobile, did not respond by deadline to The Logic’s requests for comment.

Tory is “asking companies potentially to breach their contracts and break the law,” said Michael Bryant, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. “That’s not what’s supposed to happen ever, and actually, especially during an emergency, unless there is explicit legal authority to do this.”

Bryant said if the collection happened over the weekend, as Tory described it during the TechTO event, “it’s not legal, it’s not authorized.” The initiative “hasn’t passed the necessity test and, obviously, it’s completely disproportionate,” he said, noting that under provincial privacy laws, the city is required to identify an information gap, create a plan to get necessary data, obtain legal authority to do so and then gather it in a “proportionate way which minimizes the violation of privacy as much as possible” while notifying those involved. 

Tory was responding to a question about what the thousands of attendees of the virtual event could do to help with efforts to combat the pandemic. “You all probably have ideas of similar data that your app … can produce for us,” he said. “You may not think it’s useful, but let us figure that out, because we just need more and more data about people’s habits, and about things and other applications you may think of that relate to everything from the shortage of personal protective equipment we have, through to compliance … with the orders that we’ve got to shut down and a host of other things.”

Clearbanc co-founders Michele Romanow and Andrew D’Souza; Jamie McDonald, executive general manager of product, accounting and global services at Xero; and Brice Scheschuk, managing partner of Globalive Capital, also spoke at the event, which focused on sharing best practices for the local tech community “during times of adversity.”

Other governments are using or seeking location data to inform measures to combat the spread of COVID-19. Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa’s deputy medical officer of health, said Monday the city was considering using “aggregated data, potentially from electronic sources” to see where residents were congregating, citing mobile devices as one option. Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu authorized internal intelligence agency Shin Bet to use geolocation data it already collects from cellphone companies to identify and contact people who have had close contact with infected individuals. 

On Monday, Tory declared a state of emergency in Toronto, allowing him to act without consulting city council for 30 days. He cited reporting about weekend gatherings of people as one factor in the decision. Tory has himself been in social isolation since March 13, when he returned from a trip to the U.K.

Earlier in his remarks, he urged the attendees to “follow the rules” on social distancing and isolation. “I’ll bet there’s a few that aren’t doing this,” he said, encouraging viewers to convince their acquaintances to do so, as well. “You probably have friends, each and every one of you, who have spent the weekend walking down a crowded sidewalk or in a crowded park.” 

This story has been updated to include a statement from the City of Toronto and comment from Rogers, and to correct the name of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

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