As it turns out, Silicon Valley tech giants aren’t the only institutions surreptitiously collecting massive troves of sensitive data from unsuspecting consumers. On Friday, Canada’s the Global Times published a report exposing a recently launched data collection program adopted by StatCan, the Canadian government’s economic research agency, that the agency introduced to help it collect more accurate data about consumers’ spending habits. The agency has asked Canada’s nine largest banks to turn over all the transaction records and sensitive identifying financial information (including customer’s social insurance numbers) for 500,000 randomly selected Canadians. The agency will collect and crunch this data as part of its statistical research and then, at the end of the year, it will produce a new list of 500,000 Canadians, and perform all of the same operations with their data.
After being called out by Global News, the agency explained that the data would be anonymized shortly after being compiled (meaning that all identifying information, like consumers’ SINs, would be removed).
“Canadians should know we are not accessing all of the payments data for all Canadians. It’s a small sample relative to the total number of households,” he said. “Our access to this data is permitted through both the Privacy Act and the Statistics Act.”
But that’s not exactly true. The fact that it didn’t publicly disclose the plan has left some Canadians feeling uneasy. Given that Canada has a population of roughly 20 million people, the likelihood that any one individuals’ information will be collected. To be sure, the agency said in a letter to Canada’s privacy commissioner that the data would only be used for statistics purposes. But a former privacy regulator who spoke with GN said she was “shocked” to learn of the program.
Ontario’s former privacy commissioner, Ann Cavoukian, said she was shocked by the initiative and said the ability for a government agency to build a massive database of personal banking information raises serious privacy concerns.
“Most people would be surprised and devastated if they thought all of their financial information and bills and activity were being accessed in identifiable form by Statistics Canada or any branch of government,” she said. “Medical and financial records are the most sensitive personal data that exists.”