Reboot Statscan

Statscan needs to update its operating system and reboot.

They now operate on a paper system in which only 40 per cent of surveys on spending habits are returned. Those that are returned are sometimes incomplete. Respondents sometime forget to include digital purchases such as orders from Amazon, Netflix and Uber.

Return of surveys is critical in determining strategies like benchmark interest rates which are used to calculate Old Age Security and child tax benefits. Spending habits also helps policy-makers. If Canadians are spending a large amount on drugs, for example, governments could decide to create better drug coverage.

Statscan wants to modernize the way in which they collect data through digital records held by banks. In the light of privacy breaches of Facebook and other accounts, Canadians are understandably nervous.

However, Statscan doesn’t want data that we don’t already share with banks. And unlike bank information, the data will be stripped of personal information such as your name, social insurance number, address and postal code.

We should worry more about the personal data that private companies collect. Economics reporter Barrie McKenna says:

“If you’re seriously concerned about letting others see your financial records, shopping habits and internet surfing behaviour, well, that horse left the barn a long time ago.

Just think for a minute what companies such as Toronto-Dominion Bank, Bell, Facebook, Google, Amazon or the operator of the Highway 407 toll road already know about what you did today, or in the past month. Stitch it all together, and it’s your life in bits and bytes (Globe and Mail, November 4, 2018).”

This hasn’t stopped the federal Conservatives from trying to make hay from Statscan’s plan. They have labelled it “Big Brother on steroids” and an “Orwellian intrusion into the lives of Canadians.”

Politicization of the gathering of statistics undermines the vital role Statscan plays.

There is nothing Orwellian about it and data is secure. Former assistant chief statistician at Statscan, Michael Wolfson, says:

“Under the legislation, neither the courts, the RCMP, Canada Revenue Agency nor Canadian Security Intelligence Service can access the data. Internally, Statscan has designed its computer systems with all kinds of safeguards, and it is a criminal offence to use the data for any purpose other than statistics.”

The mistake that Statscan made was to assume too much. Canadians need to be consulted about the modernization of data collection that Statscan proposes. The lobby group Openmedia is critical:

“Under our current laws, many important elements that could protect our privacy while still allowing StatCan to carry out its critical work are not in place. This includes transparency – notifying us – and meaningful consent.”

There’s a trade-off of my privacy and what I get in return. I regularly reveal details of my private life every time I use an ATM for cash, log on to Facebook to connect with friends, and buy stuff from Amazon. It’s an exchange that I accept.

All the more reason to reveal my spending habits for the public good: I want my data to be used for something other than trying to sell me something.