Get ready for libertarian outrage over de-identified cellphone data being used to promote public health

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      The media drumbeat has already begun.

      "Feds Admit Cell Surveillance" stated Blacklock's Reporter in a recent headline.

      The National Post followed up with this headline: "Canada's public health agency admits it tracked 33 million mobile devices during lockdown".

      Then the Rupert Murdoch–owned New York Post repeated the message with this headline: "Canada secretly tracked 33 million phones during COVID-19 lockdown: report".

      They're all going to draw media clicks. And they're enough to get libertarian-minded readers ready to set their hair on fire.

      So what's the real story?

      Health Canada used de-identified and disaggregated data to determine the movement of the population during lockdowns. The data was supplied through the Telus "Data for Good" program.

      Telus has actually won awards for the way it's supplying health authorities and academics with data that's "helping reduce COVID-19 transmission without compromising the personal privacy of Canadians".

      "Our city officials are adamant about reducing the spread of the COVID-19 virus, and it is obvious that the TELUS Insights team supports this cause," Surrey fire chief Larry Thomas says on the Telus website.

      "With more timely and relevant data, we can ensure that our most critical services, such as hospitals, police, and emergency responders, operate at the appropriate capacity. Our citizens are counting on us to keep the city moving, and leveraging data intelligence is one of the fastest ways we can do that."

      On the surface, it sounds awfully sinister that data from 33 million cellphones is being tracked.

      In reality, it means that public-health resources can be allocated in ways that maintain individual privacy while ensuring optimal responses against a disease that has claimed more than 30,000 Canadian lives.

      This information might help in targeting public-health messages at specific geographic regions or, pray tell, setting up police roadblocks on highways where a large number of people are disregarding orders to remain in their communities.

      Who can argue with that?

      This is nothing compared with what's going on in Singapore, where data from its COVID-19 tracing program is being turned over to police.

      In South Korea, health authorities have reportedly used credit-card transaction data, mobile phone tracking, and closed-circuit TV provided by business owners and employees to track contacts of those with COVID-19.

      There's no evidence so far that any of these things are happening in Canada. But because there's a disproportionate number of libertarian-minded journalists working for national print outlets in this country, our public health agency's use of de-identified and disaggregated cellphone data is a story that warrants scary headlines. Go figure.