Privacy Commissioner of Canada launches investigation into StatCan over controversial data project

The Privacy Commissioner of Canada says it’s launching an investigation after Statistics Canada requested the commissioner take a second look at a controversial data project which would see the federal agency gather detailed financial transaction information on hundreds of thousands of Canadians with neither their consent nor notification.

Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien said in a statement Wednesday it’s launching the investigation after receiving complaints related to Statistics Canada’s collection of personal banking information.

The announcement comes after Chief statistician Anil Arora defended the agency’s decision to compel the country’s nine largest financial institutions to turn over that data without their consent.

“We know there is going to be a segment of the population that no matter how much or what you ask or anything that you ask will have concerns,” Arora told Global News in an exclusive interview. “We respect those concerns. What we try to do is take every single measure we can to assure them of the fact that we take privacy seriously. We build it and bake it into every single one of our processes and we give them the assurance that at the end of the day, their individual record will not be seen by anybody.”

Global News first reported the details of two separate big data projects, sparking a fierce political battle between Conservatives, who oppose these projects and want them shut down, and the Liberal government, which, in legislation passed last year, gave Statistics Canada the broad new powers it is now using to gather massive amounts of personal information without notice or consent.

“The more precise the information needs are … then we have to be able to account for the fact that some people not responding to a survey or giving us access to records is going to significantly inhibit our ability to give good statistical data that we can stand behind,” Arora said.

The first project reported by Global News is already underway and involves the transfer of 15 years worth of credit history on an unknown number of Canadians from credit bureau TransUnion of Canada Inc. of Burlington, Ont., to Statistics Canada. That transfer took place as recently as January. Neither Statistics Canada nor TransUnion would say how many Canadians would have seen their credit history transferred to Statistics Canada.

The second proposed project is one of the most ambitious ever undertaken by Statistics Canada. The agency will go direct the nine largest financial institutions in the country — banks and major credit card companies — to turn over daily detail financial transaction information for a randomly selected group of 500,000 Canadians. That project is set to begin in January.

The Privacy Commissioner’s office has previously consulted with StatCan on the privacy implications related to data gathering and a summary of those talks was included in the commissioner’s 2017-2018 annual report.

WATCH: Trudeau defends Statistics Canada move to collect banking info of 500,000 Canadians

Arora says that, in every project where personal identifiers are acquired in the data sought by the agency, Statistics Canada strips those identifiers from the database once the data is aggregated, summarized, and processed.

“As soon as it comes into Statistics Canada, we take off your name, take off anything that can identify you,” Arora said.

By law, Statistics Canada is prohibited from sharing any of the personal data it collects with any other organization including other government departments like the Canada Revenue Agency or the RCMP.

Arora argues the project to be launched in January involving harvesting data from credit card companies and banks is crucial for Statistics Canada to provide comprehensive, timely, and accurate data about the social and economic characteristics of the country that policymakers need to provide government services and make decisions about interest rates and taxation levels.

“The way for us to be able to give timely information is we have to go to where Canadians interact today,” Arora said. “Nearly 80 per cent of all our transactions today are done electronically. Our paycheque goes in there, our bills get paid, transfers of money go in there. So how is it that a statistical agency that, on the one hand, has to respond to the needs of Canadians for more timely, more detailed data and on the other hand can’t, then, in a sense go to where Canadians live and operate today which is in a digital world.”

WATCH: Conservatives blast Trudeau government over StatCan collection of personal financial data

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in the House of Commons on Tuesday, was standing four-square behind Statistics Canada.

“Statistics Canada is actively engaged with the Privacy Commissioner’s office on this project and is working with it to ensure that Canadians’ banking information remains protected and private,” Trudeau said. “High-quality and timely data are critical to ensuring that government programs remain relevant and effective for Canadians.”

But Conservatives plan to continue to press to shut down any collection of personal information where Canadians have not given consent or been notified.

“The fundamental part of this … is that [Statistics Canada] is not telling Canadians,” Conservative MP Lisa Raitt said Wednesday. “We’re only finding out about because of the great work that journalists are doing in exposing it.

“Canadians don’t agree with it,” Raitt said. “My phone is ringing off the hook and so are the phones of my colleagues. Facebook is on fire. Canadians don’t like this.”

— With files from Andrew Russell

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