StatCan puts financial data collection project on hold after outcry

By: Jessica Mach on November 9, 2018

StatCan is putting its controversial financial data collection project on hold.

The announcement follows testimony from last week that Canada’s privacy commissioner said he didn’t know the scope of the agency’s latest statistics project at a Senate committee meeting on Parliament Hill Thursday.

It had previously been revealed that Statistics Canada planned on collecting the personal banking records of a half-million Canadian households.

Commissioner Daniel Therrien said that when StatCan reported the project, the government agency had only provided a general outline and had not disclosed that it would be harvesting data from 500,000 households. The omission is a serious one, Therrien said, adding that “proportionality is very important.”

StatCan wants to build a large-scale database of personal data that can be drawn upon for statistical purposes. The agency told the commissioner that the data will be used to “gain insight into consumer trends, such as tourism and travel,” a spokesperson for the commissioner said in October. “It also helps in validating other necessary information such as household addresses and residential occupancy.”

The kick-off for the project was slated for January, and it entailed the agency asking nine of the country’s biggest banks to hand over specific pieces of financial data about their consumers.

The data was to include individual financial transactions like bill payments, ATM cash withdrawals, account balances, credit card payments, and electronic money transfers.

The future of the project is now in doubt.

“We did not know about the numbers until very recently. I think this is a crucial fact,” Therrien told the committee. “The measures that Statistics Canada took were deficient on the issue of transparency for sure.”

Therrien’s testimonial took place more than a week after he announced that he would be launching a formal investigation into StatCan’s project. The commissioner had launched the probe after news of the project caught public attention in late October, and 52 Canadians filed complaints against StatCan.

All organizations in Canada are required to abide by StatCan’s requests for data, even if the data is personal. However, federal law also requires the agency to protect the confidentiality and privacy of the data it harvests.

A number of people have expressed concern about the agency’s ability to meet this requirement. Ann Cavoukian, Ontario’s former privacy commissioner, told the Senate committee that consumers’ personal identifiers — e.g., names, dates of birth, social insurance numbers — need to be removed from financial data before StatCan intercepts it.

“The data might still be sensitive but it is no longer personally identifiable,” she said. “That is the most prudent way to proceed.”

StatCan’s track record of protecting the privacy of Canadians has been spotty in recent years. During the census process in 2016, the agency lost nearly 600 sensitive files. Some files were left on the subway, while others were stolen or mailed to the wrong home. The agency is also one of 17 federal agencies whose credit card payment systems failed to pass an international security test.

Brian Masse, a New Democratic Party (NDP) MP, called for a halt to StatCan’s project.

“Canadians are appalled to learn that Statistics Canada plans to access their detailed personal banking information. They were never consulted and did not consent,” Masse said. “Building a massive database of personal banking information without telling anyone is just wrong.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meanwhile defended the project against criticisms from both the NDP and Conservatives, saying that its purpose was to help the government create better public policy. He described the Conservatives’ criticisms as a “war on data and science.”