Age of data calls for re­view of Stat­sCan

Sentinel-Review (Woodstock) - - OPINION -

The fed­eral pri­vacy com­mis­sioner is in­ves­ti­gat­ing a plan by Sta­tis­tics Canada to se­cretly col­lect the per­sonal fi­nan­cial trans­ac­tion in­for­ma­tion of hun­dreds of thou­sands of Cana­di­ans with­out their per­mis­sion. Not sur­pris­ingly, the com­mis­sioner re­ceived com­plaints af­ter me­dia re­ports re­vealed that Stat­sCan was de­mand­ing the pri­vate data from Canada’s nine largest fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions. As with pre­vi­ous Sta­tis­tics Canada con­tro­ver­sies, the long-form cen­sus be­ing a key one, this is­sue has split down party lines, with the fed­eral Tories puff­ing with out­rage about the al­leged in­tru­sion into Cana­di­ans’ pri­vacy, while the Trudeau gov­ern­ment some­what ar­ro­gantly pooh-poohs any­one with le­git­i­mate wor­ries about their data and how it will be used. Nei­ther is ap­proach­ing the is­sue in a rea­son­able man­ner.

While the Con­ser­va­tives are right to raise the is­sue so that the project re­ceives pub­lic over­sight and can be re­viewed, it’s a bit para­noid of them to sug­gest Stat­sCan would de­vi­ate from its well-earned rep­u­ta­tion of pro­tect­ing the pri­vate data it col­lects from and about in­di­vid­ual cit­i­zens. While bank­ing in­for­ma­tion, which can reveal debt loads and pur­chas­ing pat­terns, is con­sid­ered highly pri­vate by Cana­di­ans, such in­for­ma­tion isn’t par­tic­u­larly more sen­si­tive than other per­sonal in­for­ma­tion that Sta­tis­tics Canada has col­lected for decades. As with other in­for­ma­tion col­lected by the agency, in­di­vid­ual data is never shared with other fed­eral gov­ern­ment de­part­ments and is only used to reveal de­mo­graphic trends that can lead hope­fully to good pub­lic pol­icy.

But nei­ther should the prime min­is­ter dis­miss the fears of Cana­di­ans con­cerned about over­reach by our na­tional sta­tis­ti­cal agency, es­pe­cially in this age of in­creas­ingly dig­i­tal in­for­ma­tion. Given re­cent data breaches by com­pa­nies such as Face­book, Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica and oth­ers, Cana­di­ans are right to be con­cerned about how their pri­vate data is be­ing col­lected and used.

Just say­ing “trust us” doesn’t sit well.

Many Cana­di­ans be­lieve that pri­vacy should mean the right not to share per­sonal in­for­ma­tion — es­pe­cially when com­pelled by threat of pun­ish­ment — not just the right that gov­ern­ment will be care­ful with it.

The leg­is­la­tion en­abling Sta­tis­tics Canada needs to be re­viewed, es­pe­cially given the in­creas­ing im­por­tance of dig­i­tal data and the ease with which large vol­umes of pri­vate in­for­ma­tion can be shared. The Sta­tis­tics Act gives the agency too-broad pow­ers to de­mand data from Cana­di­ans. Just be­cause it can col­lect any pri­vate data should not mean that any data it’s cu­ri­ous about should nec­es­sar­ily be col­lected.

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