Plans by Statistics Canada to collect the data of half a million Canadians is raising a lot of questions about data privacy.
Global News reported Friday that Statistics Canada will be asking banks for access to their consumers’ financial data. Documents show that the federal agency is planning to ask banks for “individual-level financial transactions data,” such as bill payments, ATM cash withdrawals, account balances, credit card payments, and electronic money transfers, in addition to sensitive personal data like Social Insurance Numbers.
The process is slated to start in January.
The information will be collected for a new “personal information bank” or database. Corey Larocque, a representative from Canada’s Officer of the Privacy Commissioner, said that StatCan had informed the office it was planning on using this data to gain insight into consumer trends like tourism and travel.
A Canadian Bankers Association spokesperson told Global News that the country’s banks are aware of the project, but believed it was still in “the exploratory stages.” The banks, the spokesperson said, “were not aware that Statistics Canada was moving to compel disclosure of this information.” He added that no bank has handed any data over to StatCan yet.
Ann Cavoukian, Ontario’s former privacy commissioner, said that she is concerned about the scope of the initiative, adding that “medical and financial records are the most sensitive personal data that exists.”
StatCan told at least one bank, via a letter, that any information they collect on consumers’ financial transactions would be “used for statistical purposes only.” James Tebrake, director general of macroeconomics at the agency, said that the new data collection strategy was created as a solution to increasingly low survey response rates. The agency has historically used surveys to collect information for its statistics reports, which are frequently cited by academics and the media and are often used to inform governmental policy. However, critics have pointed out that surveys can be flawed, due to the bias and inaccurate memories of respondents.
But going directly to banks for what is supposed to be confidential consumer data has its own issues, especially in terms of privacy. And StatCan does not exactly have a clean track record when it comes to protecting the privacy of Canadians.
In 2016, the agency lost nearly 600 sensitive files during the census process, according to a report from CBC News published earlier this year. These files were variously left on a subway, sent to the wrong home, and lost when an employee’s car was stolen.
StatCan is also one of 17 federal agencies whose credit card payment systems failed an international security test, according to another CBC News report published earlier in October. The other agencies included the RCMP and the Canada Revenue Agency.