Privacy Office Unaware of Public Health’s Social Media Data Grab to Target Vaccine Hesitant

by EditorT

A COVID-19 vaccine is prepared in a file image. (Stephen Zenner/Getty Images)

By Noé Chartier

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner (OPC) said on Dec. 29 it was unaware of a Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) program to collect vast swaths of online data from Canadians to understand vaccine hesitancy and then target the individuals with tailored messaging to try changing their minds.

“I am not aware of any interactions between our Office and PHAC on this specific initiative,” said OPC spokesperson Tobi Cohen in a statement.

“We remind all institutions that the Privacy Act protects personal information even when it is publicly available, and that institutions are not allowed to collect personal information that is not directly related to an operating program or activity.”

The Epoch Times reported on Dec. 29 that PHAC has awarded a contract to social media intelligence collection firm Pulsar Platform to gather and analyze data on Canadians who are vaccine hesitant.

Pulsar is a British company which PHAC says has a Canada-based research function.

Using this data, PHAC intends to build a messaging campaign that will specifically target certain groups it calls “communities of interests,” such as “indigenous peoples and millennial males.”

Afterwards, the consultant will again collect data to measure the impact of the campaign.

The influence operation will not be the first, with PHAC having conducted a “Fall Booster Campaign” on social media, which the new consultant has been tasked to assess for its performance.

Private Information

The documents related to the program that are publicly available do not mention that the information collected by the consultant should be anonymized when being provided to PHAC.

The Statement of Work asks the consultant for an analysis of vaccine-related conversations and their participants on Twitter, Reddit, forums and other platforms for a span of up to three years.

The statement says to help PHAC “better understand the vaccine landscape in Canada, the consultant must map the volume of vaccine hesitancy conversation and specific conversation pillars over a three-year period, identifying what and who is influencing and driving key peaks in conversation, and what messaging and actions generated a positive response.”

PHAC is asking the consultant to use several advanced tools to comb through the data, such as artificial intelligence to detect sentiments and emotions expressed via text, and use algorithms to structure the data.

The consultant is also required to map individuals with algorithms to assess their sub-communities and demographics.

“Sub-communities are segmented based on interconnections (follower relationships) and then profiled based on their common affinities, demographics, and behaviors.”

PHAC seeks to obtain data on online behaviours from the vaccine hesitant, which suggests the consultant would need to access larger datasets of online activity amassed by aggregation firms to match it with the targeted social media profiles of individuals of interest.

PHAC was contacted regarding the program but has yet to provide a response.

Meanwhile the OPC has confirmed that its investigation into PHAC’s cellphone mobility tracking program is still underway after several complaints were previously filed.

It was revealed a year ago that PHAC had been tracking the movements of Canadians—unbeknown to them—through anonymized cellphone data obtained from private companies, and that it was seeking a contractor to access cellphone towers directly.

PHAC had used the data, in part, to assess Canadians’ compliance with lockdown orders, and seeks to expand the use to other public health issues.

The House of Commons ethics committee told Parliament last spring Canadians should have the option to opt-out of the tracking program.


Noé Chartier
Noé Chartier is an Epoch Times reporter based in Montreal. 

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