Age of data calls for review of StatsCan
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.