November 8, 2018 1:21 pm
Updated: November 8, 2018 8:44 pm

Statistics Canada failed to disclose key info about project to harvest bank data

WATCH: Canada's privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien is giving Statistics Canada a failing grade for transparency after it didn't fully disclose its controversial plans to harvest personal bank transaction data. As David Akin reports, the commissioner and others first learned important details of StatsCan's plans from reports by Global News.

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Statistics Canada failed to disclose key details to Canada’s privacy commissioner about a controversial plan to harvest detailed financial transaction data about 500,000 Canadian households, a failing that commissioner Daniel Therrien said contributed to the agency falling “way short” of its stated objective of being transparent.

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Testifying before a Senate committee on Parliament Hill on Thursday, Therrien said that although Statistics Canada consulted his office in a general way about a plan to force the country’s nine largest financial institutions to turn over detailed customer financial transactions, it never informed his office that 500,000 households would be involved.

“We did not know about the numbers until very recently. I think this is a crucial fact,” Therrien told members of the parliamentary committee. “The measures that Statistics Canada took were deficient on the issue of transparency for sure.”

WATCH: NDP joins Conservatives, asks Trudeau Liberals to shut down controversial StatCan projects

He said the size of the project — the number of households whose data will be retrieved — “is a crucial fact” and that “proportionality is very important. ”

Therrien launched a formal investigation of the project after 52 Canadians filed complaints after learning about the project, first reported by Global News on Oct. 26.

“Now that we are in investigative mode we will look at whether and we must conclude is if what is being proposed here lawful or not,” he said.

WATCH: Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien testifies before a parliamentary committee Thursday

Global News is publishing for the first time here the kinds of detailed data that Statistics Canada told Canada’s banks and credit card companies it was going to compel them to turn over.

The document obtained by Global News is called “Schedule 5” and it was attached to correspondence sent to the banks explaining their legal obligation to disclose this data. Personal identifiers like social insurance numbers and home addresses are included along with banking information like bill payments, account balances, and transfer and cheque details.

READ: ‘Schedule 5’ lists the detailed data Statistics Canada wants from Canada’s banks

Chief Statistician Anil Arora, who testified before Therrien on Thursday morning, described that plan as “a pilot project’ and said no data had been transferred by the banks to Statistics Canada.

“This is a pilot and it remains in active discussion,” Arora said. “While the notion of 500,000 addresses may seem large … the chance that a given address will be selected is 1 in 20. The chance it will actually used is 1 in 40.”

“We will not proceed with this project until we have addressed the privacy concerns of Canadians.”

Arora said it was his agency’s expectations that the customers of the country’s nine largest banks and credit card companies would be notified about the project before it was implemented. But while customers would be notified, there would be no chance for any bank customer to withhold consent of the use of that data.

READ MORE: Canadians have little ability to determine if StatCan has their personal banking info

Ann Cavoukian, Ontario’s former privacy commissioner, also testified before the Senate committee and said that personal information should be removed from the data before being sent to Statistics Canada.

“The data might still be sensitive but it is no longer personally identifiable,” she said. “That is the most prudent way to proceed.”

Cavoukian said anonymizing the data at its sources would strike a balance between allowing Stats Canada to obtain needed information while reassuring the public about privacy concerns.

The federal Conservatives and NDP have blasted the Liberal government for allowing the agency to create what they described as “Big Brother on steroids” and called for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to halt the project.

“Canadians are appalled to learn that Statistics Canada plans to access their detailed personal banking information. They were never consulted and did not consent,” NDP MP Brian Masse said in the House of Commons last week. “Building a massive database of personal banking information without telling anyone is just wrong.”

Trudeau has said the initiative is required to create better public policy and accused the Conservatives of a “war on data and science.”

By law, Statistics Canada has the power to compel any organization to hand over any kind of data, including detailed personal data. But federal law also puts a burden on Statistics Canada to protect the confidentiality and privacy of any data it obtains.

It is also forbidden by law from sharing the data with anyone. No other government department, no court, nor any investigative agency like the RCMP can get personal data obtained by Statistics Canada.

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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