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Privacy woes arise amid StatsCan’s gathering of Canadians’ data

Houston Today with Teresa Scassa 23 January 2019

Statistics Canada (StatsCan) has for years been gathering Canadians’ information and providing it to private companies, academic institutions and non-profit organizations for a fee.

The information is analyzed and put into data trends, or custom tabulations on social, demographic and economic topics and provided to organizations requesting it on a “cost-recovery basis”, a StatsCan spokesperson told Black Press.

StatsCan makes millions of dollars every year from passing on this information. As the agency said “Statistics Canada has the authority to generate $120 million annually in respendable revenue”, though a large amount of that comes from other federal departments, according to a StatsCan report.

Cost recovery revenue has risen since Justin Trudeau’s government reinstated census activities which were reduced under the previous Conservative government.

Since Trudeau came to power StatsCan generated $84.3 million in cost recovery in 2014-2015, $104.3 million in 2015-2016, $112.9 million in 2016-2017 and $120 million until now.

However, none of that is necessarily suspicious or uncommon for a government, said Teresa Scassa, Canada Research Chair in Information Law and Policy at the University of Ottawa.

“National statistical agencies…have a lot of skill in analyzing data,” she said. “And there’s a lot of interest in the data from the government and private sector. They do provide customized data analyses for particular clients and customers.”

And, while “cost recovery” might sound like government-speak for making profit, Scassa explained that many government services operate in the same way.

“There are a lot of contexts in which cost recovery is done. When a driver’s license is renewed there’s some cost recovery for the task provided.”

StatsCan’s data gathering on Canadians also doesn’t necessarily mean private information is being passed on, as the agency stated that the data is compiled into “aggregate form – i.e. no individuals, households or businesses could ever be identified in any of these tables.”

The practice “seems acceptable”, said Corey Larocque, Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC) spokesman, “provided that the data does not constitute personal information and therefore cannot be used to identify an individual.”

Lacrocque added that OPC has not yet carefully assessed StatsCan’s methods of gathering data for tabulations and surveys.

“We intend to discuss the matter further with Statistics Canada to obtain details on the methodologies they employ and to assess the potential risk of re-identification with its custom services and products.”

At the same time, suspicions have arisen of StatsCan’s respect for privacy following complaints last October that the agency sought private banking information of 500,000 Canadians.

StatsCan has allegedly collected data on Canadians’ transactions at banks including account balances, credit card payments and cash-machine withdrawals.

The OPC last October began an investigation into the complaints, which is ongoing.

It wouldn’t be the first time the OPC has examined StatsCan’s data collection.

In a report it released last September, the OPC said it had consulted with the agency on the privacy implications of its gathering of such information as Canadian’s mobile phone records, electricity bills and credit bureau reports.

“Although StatCan has informed us that it removes personal identifiers and uses the information only for statistical and research purposes, many Canadians might be surprised to learn the government is collecting their information in this way and for this purpose,” it said.

“We have recommended the agency consider whether it could achieve the same objectives by collecting customer information that has been de-identified before it is disclosed to the agency.”