As Statistics Canada plans to build a massive new personal information bank with the real-time financial transaction data of hundreds of thousands of Canadians, Global News has learned the agency has scooped up 15 years’ worth of credit rating information from a major international credit bureau which could include millions of Canadians.
The data harvest was done without the consent or knowledge of those Canadians whose credit history was passed on Statistics Canada.
Statistics Canada, which has broad powers to compel any organization to turn over data that organization collects, directed the credit bureau TransUnion of Canada Inc., based in Burlington, Ont., to provide social insurance numbers, names, addresses, dates-of-birth and detailed credit information, including balances owed, balances overdue, and more than 30 other fields or categories of data.
The requests occurred in October 2017 and more recently in January 2018.
Statistics Canada could not immediately say how many records were retrieved from TransUnion. TransUnion confirmed the data transfer but would not say how many records were transferred, but implied it was not its entire Canadian consumer data set.
“We are providing Statistics Canada with select administrative data on consumers to help them efficiently collect information for social and economic purposes,” TransUnion spokesperson David Blumberg said in an e-mailed statement. Blumberg declined to say how many Canadians have a credit score maintained by TransUnion.
“Statistics Canada’s access … has no impact on any individual’s credit score,” Blumberg said. “Statistics Canada is not reviewing the credit history of individual Canadians or performing credit checks on individual Canadians.”
TransUnion and Equifax Canada of Toronto are the two Canadian consumer credit bureaus. Equifax, which has data on about 27 million Canadian consumers, said it has neither been contacted by Statistics Canada nor has it provided StatCan with any data it controls.
By law, Statistics Canada is not obligated to inform individual Canadians whose personal information it obtains from credit bureaus nor is it required to obtain the consent of Canadians, a practice Canada’s privacy commissioner has urged the federal agency to change.
Statistics Canada’s harvest of the personal information from credit bureaus has been discussed among the community of Canada’s privacy experts and advocates but the practice has had no Parliamentary scrutiny or little public discussion.
Canada’s privacy commissioner, Daniel Therrien, noted in his recent annual report to Parliament that Statistics Canada is increasingly using its statutory powers to obtain detailed data about Canadians from their mobile phone companies, utility providers and credit bureaus.
“We were concerned and felt many Canadians might be surprised to learn the government is collecting their information in this way and for this purpose,” privacy commissioner spokesman Corey Larocque told Global News last week. “We have emphasized the need for public transparency to the Agency.”
Peter Hope-Tindall, a Toronto-based privacy expert, discovered Statistics Canada had retrieved his credit report from TransUnion. He was told by the agency that it had not asked for his credit information specifically but had obtained all records on any Canadian consumer held by TransUnion.
In a letter to Hope-Tindall, Statistics Canada said, “by using administrative data sources such as TransUnion, Statistics Canada is able to improve data quality, meet new and ongoing information needs, reduce data collection costs and save time for Canadians who respond to our surveys.”
Statistics Canada said the credit information it obtained is aggregated and used for statistical purposes only. It also said all personal identifiers are stripped from its database.
And yet, when Hope-Tindall filed a request under Canada’s Privacy Act to have Statistics Canada divulge any information it had about him, Statistics Canada was able to provide him with all the personal identifiers he was told had been stripped out of its database.
Federal Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer said Tuesday there are “legitimate privacy concerns” with StatCan’s collection of personal banking information.
“It caught many, many Canadians by surprise,” Scheer said while speaking at the Toronto Real Estate Board’s annual meeting. “We have a government entity that is not just going to get a snapshots of the population, but specific transactional data about where you’ve been spending your money, what you’ve been putting on your credit card. I believe that is unacceptable.”
WATCH MORE: Trudeau defends StatsCan request for Canadians’ banking information without their knowledge
On Monday in the House of Commons, the federal Conservatives called on the Trudeau government to intervene at Statistics Canada to put a halt to the planned creation of a new real-time database that would contain the detailed financial transaction data for 500,000 randomly-selected Canadians. Statistics Canada plans to compel Canada’s nine largest financial institutions to begin handing over that information early in the new year.
As with the credit bureau project, none of those randomly-selected Canadians will have the opportunity to consent to having details about every purchase made with a debit or credit card, every ATM withdrawal, loan payments and other transaction transferred to Statistics Canada. Nor will any of them be informed that their data is being transferred to the agency.
“It just never occurred to me that [Statistics Canada] would go directly to our banks and seek our sensitive financial data without at the very least any notification to me let alone getting my consent,” said Ann Cavoukian, a former Ontario privacy commissioner, in an interview Monday. “So that lack of transparency, I think, is very problematic.”
The Canadian Bankers’ Association, which represents the country’s largest financial institutions, has indicated that it has concerns about the project and expected more discussion before Statistics Canada proceeded with the project.
On its Twitter account Tuesday, one of Canada’s largest banks, The Royal Bank of Canada, tried to assure a customer nervous about the project by saying, “we’ll only use [collected data] for the purposes listed in our client agreements. Before using info for a purpose not listed, we first obtain consent. No customer transaction data or other personal info has been transferred to Stats Canada.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in response to questions by Conservative MP Candice Bergen, defended the Statistics Canada project.
TransUnion of Canada is a subsidiary of TransUnion Inc. Chicago, which maintains a database of the credit scores of 1 billion consumers in more than 30 countries including Canada.
© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.