Statistics Canada is delaying its plan to obtain the personal banking information of 500,000 Canadian households and has temporarily halted collecting credit records from TransUnion, a major international credit bureau.
The decision comes amid an ongoing controversy around the national statistical agency’s plan to launch a pilot project that would gather the sensitive personal financial information of Canadians and is now under investigation by the federal privacy commissioner.
Global News first reported in early November on Statistics Canada’s plan to collect data from nine banks and financial institutions, which included everything from credit card payments to account balances, and that 15 years of personal credit information from TransUnion had already been scooped up by the agency.
Statistics Canada said in a statement that the project — scheduled to launch in January 2019 — has been delayed.
“Statistics Canada has put this project on pause. We take the privacy and confidentiality of Canadians’ information very seriously,” said spokesperson Erin Smith-Young in an email.
The response, however, did not say whether the agency would restart the project following an investigation by the privacy commissioner or whether they would make changes to their methods of data collection, including full de-identification, as has been suggested by some privacy experts.
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TransUnion spokesperson, David Blumberg, confirmed to Global News that Statistics Canada has stopped requesting further information “at this time.”
“We provided Statistics Canada with select credit information on consumers to help them efficiently collect information for demographic and economic research,” Blumberg said in a statement. “Statistics Canada’s access to and use of the data is for statistical purposes only and has no impact on any individual’s credit score. Statistics Canada has determined not to request further information from TransUnion at this time.”
Meanwhile, the Canadian Bankers Association said its members are pleased with the decision to halt the plan.
“The continued privacy and security of our customers’ personal banking information remains of paramount importance to banks in Canada,” CBA spokesperson Aaron Boles said in an email. “Canada’s banking sector understands the valuable work Statistics Canada contributes to the country’s decision-makers, including banks, and remains optimistic that a productive working relationship will continue in the future.”
Anil Arora, chief statistician for Statistics Canada, has defended the plan saying the collection of banking records is necessary to gather a more accurate picture of the economy as Canadians have been reluctant to complete traditional phone surveys.
“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 be used is 1 in 40,” Arora said in his testimony before a Senate committee in November. “We will not proceed with this project until we have addressed the privacy concerns of Canadians.”
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Privacy advocates and opposition parties widely criticized the agency’s plan and called for it to be shut down.
Daniel Therrien, the federal privacy commissioner, has said that Statistics Canada fell “way short” of its stated objective of being transparent and that while the agency consulted his office in a general way about a plan, 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 in early November. “The measures that Statistics Canada took were deficient on the issue of transparency for sure.”