Skip to Content

Report of the committee

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Standing Senate Committee on Banking, Trade and Commerce has the honour to table its

TWENTY-NINTH REPORT

Your committee, which was authorized by the Senate on Wednesday, January 27, 2016, to examine and report on the present state of the domestic and international financial system, now tables an interim report concerning the collection of financial information by Statistics Canada.

On October 26, 2018, the Global News reporting team of David Akin and Andrew Russell and The Globe and Mail reporter Bill Curry reported that Statistics Canada will be requesting financial account records, including transaction data and personal information, on 500,000 Canadian dwellings from nine Canadian banks.  After receiving complaints, the Privacy Commissioner announced on October 31, 2018, that his office will be launching an investigation related to Statistics Canada and its collection of personal information from private sector organizations, which is referred to as administrative data.

On November 8, 2018, the Standing Senate Committee on Banking, Trade and Commerce held a meeting with the Chief Statistician and officials from Statistics Canada, the Privacy Commissioner and officials from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner, the former Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario Ann Cavoukian, the Canadian Bankers Association and the Consumers’ Association of Canada to examine the issue. A written submission was received from Canadian Research Insights Council.

The Chief Statistician characterized the efforts to collect this data as a “pilot project,” noting that no data has been collected to date by Statistics Canada as it pertains to the project. The Chief Statistician indicated that Statistics Canada has been in correspondence with the relevant financial institutions “to further strengthen the design and to better understand implementation details,” and that the design has included “input and guidance” from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner.

He also stated that the project will not proceed until the Privacy Commissioner has completed his investigation and the privacy concerns of Canadians have been addressed. He acknowledged that no other countries have implemented what is being proposed in the pilot project.

The Chief Statistician explained that the data that would be collected in the pilot project is designed to follow rigorous methodological principles, including “privacy by design” elements, and that the information would be used for statistical purposes only. He also noted that the sample will be reduced to 350,000 dwellings for the purposes of the calculations and that it will be “rotated” from one year to the next, making it difficult to create a data history for an individual.

According to the Chief Statistician, the reason for collecting administrative data is that traditional methods of data collection are out of date and may lead to the inaccurate calculation of important economic indicators such as gross domestic product and the consumer price index. In his view, when data is collected voluntarily, it is unrepresentative and biased.

He also described the general process by which Statistics Canada receives this type of data. He explained that data comes in two separate files; one containing personal identifiers and the other containing the relevant anonymized data. The “keys” that link the data with the personal identifiers are kept in a secure “vault.”

When asked why personal identifiers are required, the Chief Statistician explained that, in order to calculate income and expenditures for a household, all of the accounts and transactions of the individuals in the household need to be combined, and that attributing the data to a particular household without personal identifiers would otherwise be impossible. The Chief Statistician asserted that financial institutions do not have the expertise to provide the agency with the information that they need without providing the personal identifiers and that Statistics Canada is only interested in trends and aggregate data. He also highlighted that Statistics Canada has never had a data breach and that data would only be shared outside the agency with permission from the individual.

The Privacy Commissioner explained that he is unable to speak specifically about his investigation of the use of administrative data by Statistics Canada as it is ongoing. However, he expressed concern with respect to the scale, breadth and scope of the proposed pilot project. He also found that, although Statistics Canada took some measures to be transparent with respect to the pilot project, those measures were clearly “deficient.”

The Commissioner recommended that the Privacy Act be amended to require that the collection of data by public sector organizations, such as Statistics Canada, be authorized only where necessary and when the scope and breadth of the data collected is proportional to the public policy goals the data is intended to serve. He also clarified that, although he met with Statistics Canada on the pilot project over a year ago, his role is to provide general recommendations and that it is up to the departments and agencies to ensure that they are acting lawfully.

Ann Cavoukian stated that Canadians are growing increasingly concerned for their privacy and that, in the week since the release of the news report, over 20,000 people had signed a petition to oppose the release of their financial data to Statistics Canada. Ms. Cavoukian also contended that “privacy by design” elements are not present in the pilot project as these elements require consent and personal control of data. She further asserted that, while the collection of administrative data without the individuals’ knowledge or consent may be legal, it is not ethical.

Ms. Cavoukian suggested that Statistics Canada alter the method by which it plans to collect personal administrative data by using technologically advanced methods of data minimization and data de-identification that would allow it to collect the information it requires without infringing on the privacy of Canadians. Ms. Cavoukian suggested that section 13 of the Statistics Act, which deals with Statistics Canada’s ability to access information held by private sector organizations, be reviewed and possibly amended.

In its written submission, the Canadian Research Insights Council agreed that financial institutions should strip the data of personal identifiers. According to it, the aggregated data could be validated with survey data.

The Canadian Bankers Association indicated that it has serious concerns over the privacy implications of Statistics Canada’s data request and confirmed that no data or personal information has been transferred. It noted that discussions with Statistics Canada about the project have been ongoing for months and it believed that the project was still in the exploratory phase; as such, it was surprised that letters compelling disclosure of information were recently sent to nine individual banks. Regarding transparency with its customers, it said that it would have been premature to notify customers of the data request when the banks still had many significant questions for Statistics Canada about the project. It highlighted that the banking sector recognizes the importance of protecting the privacy and security of consumer financial data and personal information and it is encouraged by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner’s investigation into the matter. Lastly, it pointed out that all of the banks are carefully studying the legal implications of the request, including their obligations under the Statistics Act and the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), and that “all options are on the table.”

The Consumers’ Association of Canada stated that the Statistics Canada data request was a “non-starter” for Canadian consumers. Furthermore, it urged the federal government to modernize the Privacy Act in order to align Canada’s privacy standards with other international privacy standards such as the General Data Protection Regulation, to acknowledge the Privacy Act’s quasi-constitutional status, and to recognize the role individual Canadians have in controlling how their data is used. As well, it suggested that, in response to Statistics Canada data request, some consumers may choose other methodologies for payments that are not easily monitored by the government or law enforcement agencies.  

The Committee’s Observations

Privacy and the security of personal information is paramount in today’s digital economy. Following the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation in Europe, many governments are implementing measures that ensure their citizens can exercise control over their personal data. Canada is falling behind.

The committee has serious concerns with respect to Statistics Canada’s proposed pilot project, not only because of the magnitude and personal nature of the data being demanded, but also with respect to the lack of transparency used throughout in the process. Furthermore, in asking the banks to submit detailed personal information about their customers, Statistics Canada may be asking banks to comply with the seemingly conflicting legal obligations set out in the Statistics Act and the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act.

The committee recognizes that, in a constantly evolving economy, high quality data is needed so that policy makers and researchers have accurate, timely and relevant information with which to make evidence-based policy. However, Statistics Canada needs to work harder to find the means to modernize its data collection methods in order to achieve its goal of producing quality and timely data without compromising the privacy of Canadians. It should also be more transparent and direct in its communications with the Privacy Commissioner, government and Canadians.

As the committee feels that the privacy concerns of Canadians are not being met, it cannot recommend that the pilot project move forward in its present state. The committee is cognizant of the fact that, following our hearing, Statistics Canada announced that it is delaying and suspending its projects involving the collection of Canadians’ personal financial information from Canadian banks and TransUnion Canada.

The committee intends to reexamine this issue and meet again with the Privacy Commissioner and Statistics Canada once the Privacy Commissioner’s investigation is complete.

Therefore, the committee strongly suggests that the federal government consider:

• Reassessing the need for disaggregated and personal data in Statistics Canada’s pilot project. If the federal government chooses to resume the pilot project at some point in the future, at a minimum, personal identifiers should be removed before the data is transferred to Statistics Canada;

• Modernizing the Privacy Act and the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act to align Canada’s privacy standards with other international privacy standards such as the General Data Protection Regulation; and

• Reviewing the Statistics Act with a view to addressing the privacy concerns of Canadians.

Respectfully submitted,

CAROLYN STEWART OLSEN

Deputy Chair