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No access to personal financial data without consent: Senator Wells
No access to personal financial data without consent: Senator Wells
December 4, 2018
OPINION
image David M. Wells
David M. Wells
C - (Newfoundland and Labrador)

Statistics Canada head Anil Arora has admitted that consent is not necessary before the agency collects the deeply personal line-by-line financial information of millions of Canadians.

Canadians are rightly outraged.

It is not a surprise that an online petition to stop this surveillance program has already garnered over 22,000 signatures. It is also not a surprise that, according to a recent Nanos poll, 74% of Canadians oppose the plan.

When Canadians withdraw cash from an ATM, check their account balance, or transfer money between family members, they don’t expect the government to be looking over their shoulder.

If Statistics Canada wants to obtain this highly sensitive information, it should at least ask Canadians first.

The Liberal government likes to hide behind the terms “pilot project” and “anonymized data” when attempting to defend this program.

Let me bust some myths.

The plan was never intended to be just a “pilot project.” In fact, when testifying in front of the House of Commons Industry Committee, Arora revealed that the sample of Canadians monitored will “rotate from year to year.”

That doesn’t sound like a temporary pilot project to me. It sounds like a comprehensive plan to build a massive database of millions of Canadians’ personal financial data.

If monitoring the line-by-line personal financial data of Canadians in 500,000 households — roughly 1.25 million Canadians year over year, based on an average number of just under three Canadians per household — is a “pilot project,” then I am scared to see what the full project looks like.

When testifying in front of that same committee, Arora further revealed that there is a “process in place” that will allow Statistics Canada to re-engineer any de-identified data back to identifiable form.

In English, that means the government can look at every transaction of every Canadian in the sample.

The privacy concerns related to this project should not be understated.

Cybersecurity expert David Shipley has called this plan an “outrageous privacy overreach.” Former Ontario Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian has called it an “infringement of privacy rights.”

Canadian banks also have “serious privacy concerns” about this plan. And you should, too.

The bottom line is this: the government should not access Canadians’ personal financial data without consent. It is unfathomable, unacceptable and deeply intrusive.

In addition to all of the above, the government has not been transparent with Canadians. The only reason we found out about this plan, which has been in the works for months, was because it was leaked to journalist David Akin and he published the story.

In response to my question at the Senate Banking, Trade and Commerce Committee, federal Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien stated that Statistics Canada has been “deficient on issues of transparency”.

Similarly, the Canadian Bankers Association told the committee that banks were “surprised” to learn that Statistics Canada was prepared to move beyond the “exploratory phase” of the project.

The government taxes you enough. They don’t need to know how you personally spend the money you have left.

While the government may currently have the legal authority to unilaterally extract this information, they completely lack the moral authority to do so.

As we heard in committee, the data the government wants can be obtained through innovative, non-intrusive methods.

Statistics Canada announced in December 2018 it’s putting the project on hold. “On hold” is not good enough. That they’re allowed to do this without individual consent is a gross overreach into Canadians’ private lives.

 

Senator David Wells represents Newfoundland and Labrador in the Senate.

 A version of this article appeared in the November 23, 2018 edition of The Toronto Sun.