Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is defending a decision by Statistics Canada to compel banks and financial institutions to release the personal transaction data of 500,000 people without their consent.
Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen grilled Trudeau during question period Monday following a report by Global News that revealed Statistics Canada is asking the country’s nine largest banks for the transaction data of 500,000 randomly chosen Canadians, including everything from bill payments to cash withdrawals from ATMs to credit card payments and even account balances.
StatCan has said it has the legal authority to do so — even without informing Canadians or getting their consent — in order to build a personal information data bank to analyze things like consumer trends and spending habits.
“With a long history of government privacy breaches, Canadians are rightly worried,” Bergen said. “Why are the Liberals collecting the personal data of Canadians without telling them?”
Trudeau said his government would ensure that all personal information would be protected and the anonymized data will be used for statistical purposes only.
“High quality and timely data are critical to ensuring that government programs remain relevant and effective for Canadians,” the prime minister said.
Bergen called on Trudeau to “immediately assure Canadians that this intrusion into their lives will be stopped.”
“It was the Conservative government who chose to stop the long-form census,” Trudeau shot back. “What that led to was more policy based on ideology and less policy based on evidence like we are doing now. Their attacks on data and information continue.”
The uproar over the Statistics Canada initiative has renewed debate over how personal information is collected and analyzed in Canada. The agency has cited the Statistics Act and a section of the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA).
Statistics Canada has said that once the data is compiled by the agency it will be made anonymous in order to remove personal identifiers and said it has informed the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada of the initiative it hopes to have up and running by January.
However, as a new sample of Canadians will be chosen each year, Statistics Canada’s personal information bank could grow into the millions.
Ontario’s former privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian is calling for greater transparency from the federal government and said both the Statistics Act and PIPEDA need to be updated.
“It just leaves a bad taste in your mouth, unfortunately, because it seems as if Stats Canada isn’t being transparent,” Cavoukian said. “When you find out after the fact, it just leaves many questions unanswered and I think that’s the reaction you’re seeing now. People are dumbfounded by this.”
Cavoukian, who leads the Privacy by Design Centre for Excellence at Ryerson University, said it’s critical that any information should be “de-identified” before it’s gathered. She also said that poor information management or human error is often responsible for data breaches.
Statistics Canada has insisted that the data will be protected, but Cavoukian warns that with personal financial information, you can’t rule out anything.
“I know it sounds extreme, but you can’t rule out what can happen to personally identifiable data, which is very sensitive, that’s collected for one purpose and ends up being misused for other purposes,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Canadian Bankers Association has said it believes the data acquisition project was still in the exploratory stages and was not “aware that Statistics Canada was moving to compel disclosure of this information.”
“No customer transaction data or other personal information has been transferred to Statistics Canada,” the CBA said in a statement.
Data breaches involving government agencies are rare but not uncommon. Earlier this year, it was reported that Statistics Canada lost nearly 600 sensitive files during the 2016 census process after confidential documents were left on a subway and hundreds were lost after an employee’s car was stolen.