Stat­scan backs off data har­vest

Stat­scan’s plan to har­vest pri­vate bank­ing info on hold, pend­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion

The Daily Press (Timmins) - - BUSINESS - ANDY BLATCH­FORD

OT­TAWA — Sta­tis­tics Canada’s con­tro­ver­sial plan to har­vest per­sonal fi­nan­cial data with­out peo­ple’s con­sent is on hold un­til an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the le­gal­ity and in­tru­sive­ness of the project is fin­ished, the coun­try’s chief statis­ti­cian said Thurs­day.

The fed­eral sta­tis­ti­cal agency re­cently caught nine fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions off guard by in­form­ing them they were re­quired to pro­vide bank­ing in­for­ma­tion from Cana­di­ans in 500,000 house­holds across the coun­try. Cana­dian law lets Sta­tis­tics Canada com­pel pub­lic and pri­vate in­sti­tu­tions, in­clud­ing com­mer­cial banks, to turn over data they hold.

The en­su­ing pub­lic out­rage has put a spot­light on Canada’s pri­vacy laws, which crit­ics have called out­dated and in­ad­e­quate in an era where pri­vacy fears are deep­en­ing and data is be­com­ing an in­creas­ingly valu­able com­mod­ity.

The con­cerns have trig­gered heated po­lit­i­cal ex­changes in the House of Commons, where op­po­si­tion MPs have ac­cused the gov­ern­ment of state sur­veil­lance and au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism. Un­der fre­quent grilling by the Con­ser­va­tives, the gov­ern­ing Lib­er­als have in­sisted the agency will pro­tect Cana­di­ans’ pri­vacy while pro­duc­ing im­por­tant, re­li­able data.

The uproar has also stirred up se­ri­ous con­cerns in the fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions that were con­tacted — and prompted fed­eral pri­vacy com­mis­sioner Daniel Ther­rien to launch an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the mat­ter.

Fac­ing in­ten­si­fy­ing pub­lic pres­sure, chief statis­ti­cian Anil Arora told a Se­nate com­mit­tee Thurs­day that the bank­ing-data project will not pro­ceed un­til Ther­rien has fin­ished his work and Cana­di­ans’ pri­vacy con­cerns have been ad­dressed.

“We have not re­ceived a sin­gle piece of in­for­ma­tion yet from any of those fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions,” he told the com­mit­tee, which held a spe­cial hear­ing to ex­plore the is­sue.

Even so, he said, the data the agency wants would stay se­cret.

“Who do we share this in­for­ma­tion with? No one,” Arora said. “The in­di­vid­ual record is not shared with a min­is­ter, with a court, with law en­force­ment of­fi­cers, CSIS, you name it — no­body gets ac­cess to that in­di­vid­ual record.”

Arora de­fended the “pi­lot project” as part of Sta­tis­tics Canada’s ef­forts to mod­ern­ize and im­prove its dat­a­col­lec­tion ef­forts, which are meant to help the agency con­tinue pro­vid­ing high-qual­ity in­for­ma­tion — es­pe­cially given the rapid ex­pan­sion of the dig­i­tal econ­omy. For decades, the agency has pro­vided key data to help guide ev­ery­thing from fi­nan­cial mar­kets to the Bank of Canada to law­mak­ers draw­ing up so­cial pro­grams.

The new plan, how­ever, only be­came pub­lic fol­low­ing a re­cent re­port by Global News. Even Ther­rien, whose of­fice was con­sulted on the project by Sta­tis­tics Canada, said he had no idea about its scope un­til “very re­cently.”

“We were all struck in the re­cent news by the amount of data (sought) from a large num­ber of dwellings in a very de­tailed way,” Ther­rien told the Se­nate com­mit­tee Thurs­day. “I think that’s what strikes ev­ery­one — large seg­ments of the pop­u­la­tion — as an im­por­tant part of the is­sue.”

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion, which is ex­pected to last months, will con­clude whether Sta­tis­tics Canada’s plan is law­ful or not, he said.

The pri­vacy com­mis­sioner also re­called his 2016 rec­om­men­da­tion that the law be amended to au­tho­rize gov­ern­ment agen­cies to col­lect data only when nec­es­sary, and when the breadth of the in­for­ma­tion gath­ered is pro­por­tional to the pub­lic-pol­icy goals. That would bring Canada’s laws in line with in­ter­na­tional stan­dards, Ther­rien added.

At one point in his ap­pear­ance, Ther­rien was asked by a sen­a­tor whether he thought the gov­ern­ment had been trans­par­ent about its in­ten­tions from the start.

“I think it was cer­tainly a sur­prise,” Ther­rien replied af­ter a pause. “We did not know about the num­bers un­til very re­cently. I think this is a cru­cial fact.”

He con­tin­ued by say­ing Sta­tis­tics Canada took some steps to be trans­par­ent, “but ob­vi­ously they fell way short.”

“I have to con­clude, given where we are to­day, that the mea­sures that Sta­tis­tics Canada took were de­fi­cient on the is­sue of trans­parency, for sure,” Ther­rien said.

There were sev­eral at­tempts Thurs­day to score po­lit­i­cal points in the com­mit­tee cham­ber. Carolyn Ste­wart Olsen, a Con­ser­va­tive sen­a­tor, de­scribed the data-gather­ing plan as “al­most to­tal­i­tar­ian in its scope” and sug­gested many Cana­di­ans will be­gin to think we’re liv­ing in an “Or­wellian night­mare.”

Ann Cavoukian, On­tario’s for­mer in­for­ma­tion and pri­vacy com­mis­sioner, told the com­mit­tee she’s been hear­ing con­cerns the sec­tion of the Sta­tis­tics Act com­pelling in­sti­tu­tions, like banks, to pro­vide records to the agency could be un­con­sti­tu­tional.

She said amend­ments are needed — and it’s not just a le­gal is­sue, but a moral one.

“The prospect of sur­veil­lance on the part of gov­ern­ment is very ob­jec­tion­able to most peo­ple, and it’s viewed as a ma­jor in­va­sion of their pri­vacy and their free­dom,” Cavoukian said. “Jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the need for per­sonal data from Stats Canada does not jus­tify ex­tract­ing it di­rectly from cit­i­zens’ banks with­out their knowl­edge or con­sent.”

The com­mit­tee also heard from Neil Par­menter, who heads the Cana­dian Bankers As­so­ci­a­tion.

He said the in­dus­try still has many se­ri­ous con­cerns about the re­quest and many unan­swered ques­tions. The banks welcome Ther­rien’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Asked if the in­dus­try in­tends to take the mat­ter to the courts, Par­menter said: “I wouldn’t want to pre-judge and speak for in­di­vid­ual ac­tions, but I’d say all op­tions are on the ta­ble.”

SEAn Kil­PAtricK/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

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