Analog laws for the digital age

Statistics Canada, by its very name, is in the business of statistics. And a lot of very valuable information is to be had, courtesy of StatsCan.

Want to know the quarterly population estimate? The unemployment rate? The Real GDP by expenditure? Area, production and farm value of potatoes, by harvest season? Estimated areas, yield, production of corn for grain and soybeans, using genetically modified seed, Quebec and Ontario, in metric and imperial units?

All this information is available on the StatsCan website.

They’ve got data for days.

But does StatsCan need, or have a right, to harvest your personal financial transaction information?

Thankfully, Canada’s Privacy Commissioner says no. Daniel Therrien released his annual report last week, and in it he details two privacy invasive data collection projects at Statistics Canada.

The programs involved the collection of credit histories and the proposed mass collection of line-by-line financial transaction information from banks without the knowledge or consent of affected individuals. In other words, the banks would pass on the information and did not even have to inform you that they had done so.

Therrien did not find StatsCan broke any privacy laws by proposing this data mining, but he says the agency did not demonstrate the necessity of collecting so much highly sensitive information about millions of Canadians.

Just imagine. The government would have information about your daily financial transactions, and those transactions can tell anyone a whole lot about your lifestyle. Without you even knowing that information has been released.

“Canadians were deeply troubled by these initiatives,” says Commissioner Therrien. “This concern was clearly justified given the scale of the proposed collection, the highly sensitive nature of the information and the fact that the information in question would paint an intrusively detailed portrait of a person’s lifestyle, consumer choices and private interests.”

And again, thankfully, StatsCan agreed to abide by Therrien’s recommendations and not go ahead with these projects.

Now StatsCan has said that it isn’t interested in individual transactions, although that’s what it would be receiving if they went ahead. They merely want a picture of Canadians’ financial health, and debt situation. All personal identifiers are stripped from the database, they say.

And, under the Statistics Act, they can have access to that information, although in this instance, they are not going ahead, given the uproar.

The problem with the Statistics Act is that it was written before digital data was a thing. It deals with the collection of written records.

To breach collected data in the analog world, a thief would literally have to break in to a storage vault at StatsCan.

Not so anymore. Now a data thief only has to breach the electronic firewall.

We have heard just this week that there was a data breach at Life Labs, one of Canada’s biggest medical provider of lab services. They even have an office in Kimberley. So some people’s private medical information has been stolen.

It’s a little scary when you think about all the delicate information about you that is floating around in cyberspace. You can only hope that it’s staying where it should and not being shared.

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