Toronto mayor retracts claims city is collecting cellphone location data in COVID-19 fight

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Toronto Mayor John Tory has walked back public claims he made Monday that the city was gathering cellphone data from telecommunications companies to spot places where residents continue to gather despite social-distancing measures to slow the spread of COVID-19.

As first reported by The Logic, Tory told thousands of attendees of an online event hosted by TechTO that the city had “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?’” He called such gatherings “the biggest enemy of fighting” COVID-19.

But on Tuesday, Tory said he had spoken incorrectly. “I made it sound like it was happening, not knowing it wasn’t happening,” he told the Toronto Star. The Star reported Tory had “raised the idea casually, but hadn’t spent time considering it deeply or putting it in use.”

Tory’s claims at the TechTO event came in response to a question about what those watching could do to assist the city’s efforts to fight the outbreak. Shortly after, The Logic contacted Don Peat, the mayor’s executive director of communications, with a transcript of the relevant section of Tory’s comments and questions including about to which companies he had been referring, what data the city had received and how it was using the information.

“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,” Peat said in response. “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.”

Asked to clarify whether the city had already received any data, Peat directed The Logic to city staff, and copied Brad Ross, Toronto’s chief communications officer. The Logic followed up with Ross, but did not receive a response until after publication.

“The City of Toronto is not collecting cell phone location data, nor has it received any such data,” Ross said in an email early Tuesday. Asked to explain the contradiction with Tory’s comments on Monday night—in which the mayor called the data collection “something we’re doing now” and said he had “asked for it” and was “getting it”—Ross directed the inquiry back to Peat. “The City of Toronto statement stands: the City is not in possession of such data, nor will it acquire such data,” he said.

Neither Peat nor Ross have responded to The Logic’s repeated requests to provide further clarification.

On Monday night, Tory also asked TechTO event attendees to consider whether their own products produced data that could aid the city in its antiviral efforts. “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,” he said.

It remains unclear who extended what Peat characterized as an “offer” to share cell data. Telus told The Logic it has not been contacted by the City of Toronto, while Rogers said it was not among the companies to which Tory was referring. Bell told the Star that no government had requested subscriber data, but the company “would consider it if it helps in the fight against COVID-19 while respecting privacy laws.” Shaw told Yahoo Finance Canada it had not been contacted by the city.

Other countries have used cellphone location data to track and enforce social distancing measures. South Korean health authorities and district offices have sent text messages to residents with links to websites detailing the movements of COVID-19 patients. Israel’s cabinet has given a domestic intelligence agency permission to use data it already gets from wireless carriers to identify and contact people who have been in close physical proximity to infected individuals.

Other officials engaged in the response to the outbreak were asked about cellphone location data tracking on Tuesday, following The Logic’s reporting.

“There has been, and continues to be, a wide variety of suggestions that come in to the city and into our [emergency operations centre] process with respect to opportunities to assist in potentially dealing with this issue,” said Matthew Pegg, the city’s fire chief and general manager of its Office of Emergency Management, during an afternoon press conference. “That’s an example of one of the suggestions that’s been made.”

Pegg repeated Ross’s comment that the city was not in possession of nor was it using any such data. Asked whether such information would be useful, if privacy considerations were dealt with, he said he “wouldn’t speculate at this point.”

Dr. Theresa Tam, the federal chief public health officer, said, “There’s lots of innovative approaches, and they should all be examined, obviously with respect, due respect to privacy, ethics, and all of those considerations.” But she noted that self-isolation and social distancing remain Canada’s “primary strategy” for dealing with the spread of COVID-19.

And Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked Tuesday morning whether the federal government was using data from telecom firms to monitor people who should be self-isolating. “As far as I know, that is not a situation we’re looking at right now,” he said. “But as I’ve said, all options are on the table to do what is necessary to keep Canadians safe in these exceptional times.”

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