Amid the uproar over Statistics Canada‘s plan to obtain the sensitive banking data of hundreds of thousands of Canadians without their consent, privacy experts say there is little people can do to verify if their information has been obtained by the national statistical agency.
Teresa Scassa, a University of Ottawa professor who specializes in information law, said if Canadians want to know whether their sensitive financial information has been scooped up, they can try asking the agency or their financial institution — but don’t expect a response.
Both the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act and the Statistics Act allow the private sector to share information with government agencies without the consent or knowledge of Canadians.
“It has a whole range of exceptions to the requirement of knowledge or consent for collecting, using or disclosing information,” Scassa told Global News. “The organization could tell you, but they certainly aren’t required by law to do this.”
Global News first reported that Statistics Canada is attempting to compel nine financial institutions to hand over the transaction data of 500,000 customers and has already collected 15 years’ worth of information from credit bureau TransUnion of Canada, which could have data from millions of Canadians.
Neither Statistics Canada nor TransUnion would say how many Canadians would have seen their credit history shared.
The head of Statistics Canada, Chief Statistician Anil Arora, defended the agency’s plans to obtain detailed banking records, but is calling in the federal privacy commissioner get a second opinion on how to move forward.
“Do Canadians have a right to debate this issue? Absolutely they have a right,” Arora told Global News. “But I think we need to make sure that in that process, we don’t become a casualty in not being able to serve the needs of Canadians today or into the future.”
WATCH: Canada’s Chief Statistician defends gathering private banking info
Arora said Statistics Canada has been working to find new ways of capturing better economic and social data as fewer Canadians have filled out their traditional surveys. He assured Canadians that the information collected will be anonymized, meaning that once the data is obtained, “we take off your name, take off anything that can identify you.”
“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.
“We’re not interested in your specific transaction or how much you sent to your mom, that’s none of our interest. What we are looking at is, to what degree are Canadians leveraged?”
Arora also pointed to Section 13 of the Statistics Act, which grants the Chief Statistician access to “any documents or records that are maintained in any department or in any municipal office, corporation, business or organization.”
However, Scazza strongly disagrees and says the Statistics Act was written before the internet existed and needs to be updated.
“It was drafted in an analogue age. It’s talking about the requirement of organizations to provide documents and records,” she said. “They’ve just read it as now including digital documents or records.
“The analogue world had inherent limitations on what could be achieved by something like this. I mean, there is only so much paper you could transfer,” she said. “Data breaches are a significant and realistic concern.”
Ann Cavoukian, Ontario’s former privacy commissioner, said Canadians are left with few concrete options to determine if Statistics Canada is attempting to gather your financial data.
She advised people to contact their banks directly to demand to be notified, but they aren’t required to respond.
“Ask them that at the very least you want to be notified,” Cavoukian said. “Banks want to keep your business.”
Global News contacted Canada’s five largest banks — TD, CIBC, RBC, BMO and Scotiabank — who all confirmed that no client information has been shared with Statistics Canada.
A last resort to determine if Statistics Canada has your banking data is to file a freedom of information request (FOI) under Canada’s Privacy Act.
Global previously reported on Toronto-based privacy expert Peter Hope-Tindall, who discovered Statistics Canada had retrieved his credit report from TransUnion.
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.
When Hope-Tindall filed an FOI request to have Statistics Canada divulge any information it had about him, he learned the agency had all the personal identifiers he was told had been stripped out of its database.
Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien announced Wednesday his office is launching an investigation after receiving complaints from the public and will be seeking details regarding the information requests the agency has made to various industry sectors.
Therrien’s office has said it’s previously consulted with StatCan on the privacy implications related to data collection and a summary was included in the Commissioner’s 2017-18 annual report.
Meanwhile, Conservative MPs hammered the Liberal government in the House of Commons this week for allowing the agency to create “Big Brother on steroids” and called for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to halt the project.
Trudeau has said the initiative is required to create better public policy and accused the Conservatives of a “war on data and science.”
WATCH: Trudeau and Scheer spar over StatCan and protecting the privacy of Canadians
— With files from David Akin