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Canadian government’s plans to study digital age ‘better late than never,’ expert says

The Toronto Star with Teresa Scassa 18 June 2018

Emerging big data and artificial intelligence technologies have the potential to dramatically reshape Canada’s economy. Now, Ottawa’s trying to catch up.

Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains will announce Tuesday the government is launching a national study into “digital and data transformation.”

The summer-long study will eventually inform a national strategy to grapple with the varied challenges the data age presents to governments, Bains told the Star in an interview Monday.

“The ambition is that this will require and engage different departments … this is really going to be all hands on deck,” said Bains. “Data (use) has so many aspects, from global affairs to trade to national security … to how we interact with our fellow citizens, to the economic opportunities that we are looking at.”

“Big data” has become a bit of a buzz term in recent years. It commonly refers to the collection and analysis of massive amounts of information to draw out conclusions or make predictions.

The economic implications are immense — data, especially personal data, has been referred to as “the new oil.” Companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google collect massive amounts of personal information about their users, and have made billions commodifying that information.

But big data’s use has also piqued the interests of political parties and governments. Sometimes that can happen in positive ways, such as government efforts to streamline and offer better services to citizens. However, the Cambridge Analytica scandal — involving the use of millions of Facebook users’ personal information to attempt to sway elections — shows there are more nefarious uses for big data in the public realm.

There are concerns that Canadian public policy has lagged behind the rapidly evolving digital world.

Teresa Scassa, the chair of Information Law at the University of Ottawa, said releasing a data strategy in 2019 means Canada is “late to the party and significantly underdressed.”

“There have been reasons why Canada, on a lot of these things, has taken a wait-and-see approach. Part of it, I think, is we have a smaller population and a smaller market than the U.S. or the E.U., so things move a little bit more slowly and develop a bit more slowly” Scassa said in an interview Monday.

“(But) we had to deal with it for a long time, and there just hasn’t been an appetite. The deficiencies in the law have been clear for a long time, there have been all kinds of studies, (the House of Commons’ ethics committee) has reviewed the law, there have been studies, reports … this is nothing new.”

“We know there are problems with the law and they need to be addressed.”

Despite the well-established issues around data protection and governance, Bains said it was important to go out and hear directly where people stand on the issues — including companies who deal with data, as well as those concerned about privacy and data ownership issues.

Rohinton Medhora, president of the Centre for International Governance Innovation think tank, agreed that in an “ideal world” Canada would have begun working towards a national data framework years ago. But “better late than never,” Medhora said in an interview.

“We at least have to have a framework which then prioritizes what the national interest is, and then says, ‘These are the areas where there are opportunities, let’s seize them,’” Medhora said.