StatCan has some explaining to do

Statistically speaking, the vast majority of Canadians would be inclined to consider their personal financial and banking information to be private and protected, while a scant minority — something approaching zero per cent, one might reasonably surmise — would have no problem at all with such information being collected, dissected and possibly shared.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/11/2018 (1554 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Statistically speaking, the vast majority of Canadians would be inclined to consider their personal financial and banking information to be private and protected, while a scant minority — something approaching zero per cent, one might reasonably surmise — would have no problem at all with such information being collected, dissected and possibly shared.

Which is why Statistics Canada finds itself in a bit of a pickle this week, after the federal privacy commissioner launched an investigation into the agency’s plan to force banks to hand over financial records that would allow StatCan to track how, where and how much Canadians spend.

The initiative, which reportedly took Canada’s banking sector by surprise, drew immediate fire from the official Opposition, which accused the federal government of allowing StatCan to amass a stockpile of information about Canadians’ finances without their consent.

“Canadians have a big problem with the government having real-time data on how they go about their daily lives,” Conservative deputy leader Lisa Raitt said during Wednesday’s question period. “If someone goes to Tim Hortons, the government knows we were there. If someone goes to the grocery store, instantly, the government knows they are there. This is not right.”

Ms. Raitt’s conjuring of a Big-Brother-is-watching-you-order-that-double-double-and-apple-fritter scenario seems a bit of an overblown speculation, but her underlying point is valid. Despite StatCan’s declaration that this new approach is necessary because “traditional statistics-gathering methods are no longer sufficent to accurately measure Canada’s economy and social changes,” more public discussion — and certainly more transparency — are required.

A StatCan official described the banking-information demand as a pilot project and noted that guidance from the federal privacy commissioner had been sought in advance

In a statement posted on the agency’s Twitter account, a StatCan official described the banking-information demand as a pilot project and noted that guidance from the federal privacy commissioner had been sought in advance. The prime minister, for his part, dismissed the Opposition’s objection as fear-mongering and said the new method will allow StatCan to more effectively engage in the “fact-based decision-making” it is tasked with producing.

At issue here is not so much the idea that information is being gathered — in the digital age, the activities and movements of Canadians are constantly being tracked by any number of private companies that monitor smartphone use, web browsing and credit- and debit-card transactions — but, instead, that the federal information agency seems to have initiated this new approach in a rather surreptitious manner.

Bank officials believed the new StatCan approach was still in the exploratory stage, but financial institutions recently received letters from the agency informing them they will be required to hand over client information beginning in January. The request calls for provision of raw, non-anonymized data, from which StatCan would then remove individual names before conducting its analysis.

Most of Canada’s major banks confirmed this week they are in discussions regarding how to respond, and that they have not yet provided any client information to StatCan. And until the agency can explain, in considerable detail, what information is needed, why it is required and how StatCan can guarantee the information will be protected, they should not be compelled to do so.

The agency’s former chief statistician, who resigned in 2016 over concerns about data security, urged caution. “Statistics Canada should be able to say, ‘OK, here’s the purpose and here’s why it’s important enough to justify this intrusion,'” Wayne Smith told the Globe and Mail. “If they don’t have an answer, they should stop now.”

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