Statistics Canada should take different course on banking data

The fact a government agency has been granted a power doesn’t necessarily mean its use is a good idea.

News spread this week that Statistics Canada has asked the country’s major banks to provide sensitive financial data, including transaction histories and social insurance numbers from 500,000 random Canadian adults annually. If the banks are understandably reluctant to hand over that data, Statistics Canada has the ability to compel the transfer under the Statistics Act and the Privacy Act. It executed a similar request within the past year by collecting multiple years of customer data from one of the country’s credit rating agencies.

In this age when reports of international cyber fraud and data breaches seems to be an almost daily occurrence, it is hard to imagine Canadians would be happy knowing their information and personal identifiers may be accessed by a broader network of people. The more often data is transferred, the higher the statistical chance there is of that data becoming vulnerable to nefarious access. Theft would represent the largest threat to individual privacy.

Beyond that, the public should be kept well informed about the agency’s interest in this sort of data and the methodology it plans to use. Will that ratio of one in 20 Canadians, presumably sorted by other identifiers like age, sex, and income, be enough to give an accurate portrayal of consumer spending habits? Is the expectation of collecting additional random samples in the coming years from different Canadians going to support the initial findings or deviate from it because of the random selection? Will the analysis be able to effectively pick out changes to the economy and spending habits or is the aim too broad?

There’s also the question of what kind of resources will be poured into the management and examination of this data and it’s relative worth to taxpayers. Statistics Canada can provide some clarity on that, but the value equation likely can’t be fully accounted for in advance. Tax changes, tariffs on recurring international purchases, and new banking rules are all possible outcomes that could be a pro or a con for the country, depending on one’s point of view.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vigorously defended the action in the House of Commons this week, lashing out at the Conservatives whose last government cancelled the long-form Census. He stated his government’s decision to bring the questionnaire back was met with applause as taxpayers realize governments require effective statistics in order to devise better policy. His premise is sound, but there’s a distinction in the two scenarios.

With the Census and other traditional means of data collection employed by Statistics Canada — like surveys — those giving their data were able to control their answers and they were willing participants. In this instance where data is being taken without notice, they’re anything but. If Trudeau is so convinced Canadians support the need to collect this data, surely those that agree would voluntarily consent through their banks to be included. There’d be no need to gather that data and spread fears of Big Brother, whether justified or not.

Government could also create legislation and partner with financial and technology institutions to create innovative ways to capture trends like out-of-country spending or sector profiles without having to rely on the private, sensitive data of an unknowing constituency.

-Adam Bramburger