In an attempt to slow the rapid spread of COVID-19, the City of Toronto is reportedly accessing cellphone data from wireless carriers to find out where people continue to gather in groups despite being told not to.
This, according to Mayor John Tory himself.
“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?'” said Tory on Monday night during a public online video-conference hosted by TechTO.
“Because the biggest enemy of fighting this thing is people congregating close together.”
The Logic, which broke the story following TechTO’s Together event, was told by the mayor’s executive director of communications that Tory was merely “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.”
“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,” said Don Peat.
— TechTO (@TechTorontoOrg) March 23, 2020
On Tuesday morning, Toronto spokesperson Brad Ross told The Logic similarly that the city “is not in possession of such data, nor will it acquire such data.”
Tory, however, referred to the gathering of location data during his Monday night video chat as “something we’re doing now.”
The mayor did not specify which telecoms would have been involved in providing cellphone data to city officials, but Tory did say that such data would be used to “generate a heat map” — as opposed to cracking down on individuals who violate social distancing recommendations.
Whether this is happening or not remains unclear, but privacy advocates aren’t pleased by the idea of city officials surveilling citizens in such a way.
Updated: Toronto “is not in possession of such data, nor will it acquire such data,” said city spokesman Brad Ross this AM. Asked to explain Tory’s remarks, he directed me to mayor’s office. “We have nothing further to say,” said Tory spokesman Don Peat.
— Murad Hemmadi (@muradhem) March 24, 2020
“At a time when politicians setting new rules for us by the hour, they’ve got to follow the rule of law too,” wrote the Canadian Civil Liberties Association in a tweet about The Logic’s article.
“A Mayor can’t just ask for our data from wireless carriers, without legal authorization, necessity and proportionality.”
It is of note that Tory declared a state of emergency in the City of Toronto on Monday over the coronavirus outbreak, giving him the power to pass motions and enact new rules without a vote from city council.
If the data collection did take place over the weekend, however, before the state of emergency was declared, it could be seen as illegal.
As Canadian Centre for Civil Liberties executive director Michael Bryant told the Logic last night: “That’s not what’s supposed to happen ever, and actually, especially during an emergency, unless there is explicit legal authority to do this… it’s not legal, it’s not authorized.”