The Standing Committee on Banking, Trade and Commerce
Senate banking committee sheds light on Statistics Canada’s secretive demand for Canadians’ personal banking data
December 11, 2018
Ottawa – Statistics Canada’s demand for the personal banking data of half a million Canadian households could be considered unethical and may lead to lawsuits from banks who are trying to protect their customer data.
This was the thrust of testimony given to the Senate Committee on Banking, Trade and Commerce earlier this month after a Global News report outed the federal statistics agency’s demand for transaction information data and personal information belonging to customers of nine financial institutions.
The committee asked representatives from Statistics Canada, the Privacy Commissioner, banking and consumer groups and privacy experts to testify at a committee meeting on November 8, 2018, to hear evidence about the rationale for the demand and whether it should be honoured. On Tuesday, the committee released a concise report with observations.
Chief Statistician Anil Arora told the committee the “pilot project” was necessary to bring up to date obsolete data collection methods so as to correctly calculate important economic indicators like gross domestic product and the consumer price index. He also said the information collected would be anonymized and kept securely.
Former Ontario information and privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian, however, said the collection of personal data without consent “may be legal, but it is not viewed as being ethical.” Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien said his office had received complaints and is investigating the demand.
Section 13 of the Statistics Act allows Statistics Canada to force businesses to turn over records. The Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, however, imposes obligations on business to protect customer data. Asked if banks would consider legal action to thwart Statistics Canada’s demand, Canadian Bankers Association president and CEO Neil Parmenter told the committee that “all options are on the table.”
While there is an evident need for improved data collection, this must be balanced with respect for Canadians’ privacy.
To that end — and while Canadians await the results of the Privacy Commissioner’s investigation — the committee strongly suggests that the federal government restructure the pilot project so personal identifiers are removed before the data is transferred to Statistics Canada, that the government align Canada’s privacy legislation with international standards, and that the government review the Statistics Act to address Canadians’ privacy concerns.
In their own words
- Chief Statistician Anil Arora assured the committee that Statistics Canada “will not proceed with this project until we have addressed the privacy concerns expressed by Canadians by working co-operatively with the Privacy Commissioner and with financial institutions.”
- Former Ontario information and Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian said section 13 of the Statistics Act may be unconstitutional. She told the committee that it “authorizes warrantless seizures in violation of a reasonable expectation of privacy under section 8 of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”
- Canadian Bankers Association president and CEO Neil Parmenter said, “the industry still has many serious concerns with the nature of the request and many unanswered questions.”
“When Statistics Canada boasts about its secure systems — Mr. Arora said ‘not a single data point has been breached from any of our servers’ — I can’t help but think of the confidence with which engineers proclaimed the Titanic to be unsinkable. In light of the alarming findings of our committee’s recent report on cyber security I am concerned about the agency’s ability to protect Canadian’s personal information.”
- Senator Doug Black, QC, Chair of the committee.
“Canadians are rightly concerned about what information Statistics Canada is collecting and how it will be used. In an era of heightened cybersecurity risks it is incumbent on the government to not just say what it is doing, but also to justify it. The secretive manner in which this agency has gone about its work does not inspire confidence. Canadians need to know their information is being collected in an open, transparent and secure manner.”
- Senator Carolyn Stewart Olsen, Deputy Chair of the committee.
- Read the committee’s twenty-ninth report on The collection of financial information by Statistics Canada.
- Read the committee’s October 2018 report on cyber security, cyber assault: it should keep you up at night.
- Follow the committee on social media using the hashtag #BANC.
- Sign up for the Senate’s eNewsletter.
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