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Editorial: Data mining gets personal

Statistics Canada wants to take a look at your banking information. —
Statistics Canada wants to take a look at your banking information. — 123RF Stock Photo

It’s never a good sign when the federal privacy commissioner announces he’s launching a formal investigation.

It’s more alarming when that inquiry is targeting Statistics Canada.

Why? Because the national data-gathering agency wants to delve into the personal banking records of Canadians to satisfy federal curiosity about consumer trends and spending habits.

Statistics Canada claims it has the legal authority to gather such information, without informing or consulting Canadians.

That’s a double invasion of our privacy.

The federal plan would compel banks to hand over records so that Statistics Canada can track how and where Canadians spend their money. It seems traditional data-gathering methods are longer adequate for measuring Canada’s economy and social changes.

Statistics Canada sent letters to financial institutions, ordering them to provide customers’ banking details, such as social insurance numbers, phone records, credit bureau reports and electricity bills. But the plan goes beyond that. It means the government will know if we buy a morning coffee at Tim Hortons, if we shop for Atlantic salmon at Sobeys on the way home from work and if we prefer Domino’s over Pizza Delight for a late-night snack.

Statistics Canada claims it has the legal authority to gather such information, without informing or consulting Canadians.

Of course, we are assured that there will be the highest levels of privacy and confidentiality. Well, Ottawa can’t even pay its own public servants without getting into a gigantic payroll mess. And last year the federal government paid $17.5 million to settle a class-action lawsuit over a privacy breach involving more than 580,000 student loan applications.

How long will it be before the first hacker breaks into the Statistics Canada computers? High-tech and social media giants routinely have their cybersecurity breached, so why should databanks in our federal system be immune?

The original Statistics Canada demand is for the records of 500,000 Canadians, starting in January. It’s safe to assume 10 per cent or more will live in Atlantic Canada. A new sample will be chosen every year, so the database will quickly grow into the millions.

Somewhere in Ottawa, alarm bells should be ringing. If the federal privacy commissioner is concerned enough to launch a full probe, it’s time to rethink this scheme. Ottawa should look at bringing back the long-form census questionnaire as a better means of obtaining the financial information Statistics Canada needs.

Atlantic Canadians have a message for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Statistics Canada — butt out of our banking information and leave us with some privacy.

Statistics Canada can glean enough information elsewhere, without providing bureaucrats or politicians or whomever the chance to delve into our financial data. Accessing our private banking information is an easy, lazy way out.

Statistics Canada announced late Thursday that their plan is on hold until the privacy commissioner completes his investigation. Hopefully, that investigation will put a quick end to this attempted foray by federal snoops.

This scheme goes way over the line.

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