StatsCan putting financial data collection project on hold after public outcry

StatsCan putting financial data collection project on hold after public outcry

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Canada’s chief statistician says a controversial “pilot project” involving the collection of customer data from banks will not go ahead until the anxieties about the effort are addressed.

Anil Arora told the Senate of Canada’s banking, trade and commerce committee on Thursday that the proposal has not yet been implemented and that no related data has been harvested by Statistics Canada.

“I can assure you that we will not proceed with this project until we have addressed the privacy concerns expressed by Canadians by working cooperatively with the privacy commissioner and with the financial institutions,” Arora said.

The flurry of concern over the StatsCan proposal began when Global News reported in late October that the agency was asking several banks for information on the financial transactions of hundreds of thousands of Canadian households.

After the report was published, Arora said in a statement that the traditional ways of gathering information, “are no longer sufficient to accurately measure Canada’s economy and societal changes.”

Arora added that more than three-quarters of purchases are made online by Canadians, and that Statistics Canada “has to have access to these data” in order to provide quality statistics in certain areas, such as housing and debt.

The chief statistician continued to defend the need for quality stats on Thursday, noting there is wide use of the agency’s information. He noted that, “while the notion of 500,000 addresses may seem large,” there are more than 14 million households in Canada.

Arora also stated at the end of October that they had already worked with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada during the planning of the project, but that he had invited the commissioner to provide additional recommendations on the effort.

Soon after, the privacy commissioner’s office announced an investigation into StatsCan, saying they had received complaints about the agency “and its collection of personal information from private sector organizations.”

But when the privacy commissioner appeared before the committee on Thursday, the watchdog said the potential size of the pilot project was relatively new knowledge.

“Before these complaints, we had discussions about administrative data collection in general, about certain pilot projects in general, but not about numbers until very recently,” said Daniel Therrien, the privacy commissioner.

Neil Parmenter, the president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Bankers Association, told the committee that the group and its members “have been clear that we have serious concerns over the privacy implications of the StatsCan transaction-level data request.”

Parmenter, like Arora, stressed that no customer-transaction data or other personal information had been transferred to StatsCan, although he added later that some financial institutions had received “compel letters.” The CBA, he said, was also encouraged that the privacy commissioner was reviewing the request.

“Trust and confidence of the Canadian public is critical,” Parmenter said. “As such, the banking sector continues to emphasize the central importance of protecting the privacy and security of customer financial data and personal information.”

The issue has also become a political football, with the Senate banking committee saying it would hold “at least” one hearing on the subject.

Collection of banking data has become a topic of debate in the House of Commons as well. Conservative opposition leader Andrew Scheer declared on Wednesday that, “the only thing Canadians want to hear from the Prime Minister is that he is cancelling the project.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau fired back by saying that the government understands the need for reliable data, but also prioritizing the protection of privacy.

“That is why this data that Statistics Canada collects is anonymized, is subject to stringent controls,” Trudeau added. “Indeed, this is the pilot project it is working on now, which has not even rolled out yet.”

• Email: gzochodne@nationalpost.com | Twitter: GeoffZochodne

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