Colby Cosh: Can the Liberals avoid a partisan trap on StatCan and the banks?

During the controversy in 2010 over the use of compulsion to collect data for Canada’s long-form census, Canadians demonstrated a touching faith in their national statistical agency. The Conservative government of the time made an Order-in-Council that removed the longer census questionnaire, sent to a subset of Canadian households, from the part of the law that makes returning census information mandatory. When the Chief Statistician resigned over this, civil society rallied impressively in defence of the mandatory long form. The Tories were, somewhat successfully, portrayed as wishing to starve the state of detailed evidence for policymaking. The long form was once again mandatory for 2016’s census.

In 2018, that bitter argument has gained a sequel. It turns out that the difference between data gathered from a mandatory questionnaire and data gathered from a voluntary one is, to a statistical agency, not that big a deal. What Statistics Canada really dreams of is direct access to detailed data, “administrative” or otherwise, collected automatically by computers or other metering devices. Given the choice, they would rather not ask blundering, lying humans how many sinks, drains and toilets they have in their home. Much better to just read your water meter from hour to hour.

Last week, Andrew Russell and David Akin of Global News got the scoop that StatCan is going straight to the metaphorical faucet for personal bank-transaction data on Canadian individuals. The agency announced plans to demand “payments and income history information” from nine Canadian financial institutions. The idea is to collect detailed financial data — more or less anything that would appear on a bank statement, including balances, withdrawals and transfers — for a sample of a half-million Canadians, with the sample being refreshed every year.

The banks themselves had thought this project was “still in the exploratory stages,” according to a Canadian Bankers Association statement given to Russell and Akin. StatCan hasn’t been handed any data yet, but given its broad powers under Canadian law, there is not much they can do to stop the agency from demanding the information.

Shoppers pass in front of a store in downtown Montreal. Statistics Canada wants the detailed financial transactions — deposits, withdrawals and transfers — of half a million Canadians annually.

Having access to it would obviously be the equivalent of a superpower for StatCan. The existing realtime data on Canadian economic activity is collected mostly through questionnaires, whose degree of detail faces inherent human-fatigue limitations. A large sample of personal bank statements would be like replacing a telescope with an electron microscope. Much of StatCan’s existing economic survey activity, and even some of its social surveillance, would become obsolete instantly.

And all that’s required is … for everybody to just suck it up and love the idea of Statistics Canada reading and storing our banking information. This is probably going to be the hard part.

This StatCan project became political the instant that Russell and Akin reported it, reaching the floor of the House of Commons, and the agency’s heedlessness may frankly already be hard to forgive. Its note to the banks seems to have taken the form of a clear stated intention to collect the data, coupled with a reminder that it has the legal authority. Statistical agencies like to talk a good game about securing the trust of those whose information it collects, and about openness, but in this case StatCan appears to have met these duties poorly with regard to the banks and paid them no attention whatsoever with respect to the general public. There has certainly been little or no wider consultation with privacy experts exterior to the federal government, and Russell and Akin had zero trouble finding some who were astonished by the audacity of StatCan’s plans.

Personal finance information is the kind that people are most sensitive about, with medical data being the lone exception. The agency has now launched what appears to be a public-relations offensive to explain that it is independent from the rest of Canadian government, that it has a pretty strong data-security track record (which is true, although that record is not perfect), and that it would generally be just dandy for StatCan to have this information.

Given StatCan’s broad legal powers, there is not much banks can do to stop the agency from demanding detailed financial information about clients, writes Colby Cosh.

When the Global scoop came before the House on Oct. 29, the prime minister echoed these talking points and blundered into a quarrel with the Conservatives. Candice Bergen, the Tory House Leader, was careful to adopt a partisan framing of the issue: “Why,” she asked, “are the Liberals collecting the personal data of Canada without telling them?” Trudeau ought to have been content to emphasize the independence of Statistics Canada, ideally without advocating for or against the agency’s bellicose advisory to the banks.

Instead, the PM left the impression that he thinks the project is a terrific idea (“High quality and timely data are critical to ensuring that government programs remain relevant and effective for Canadians”) and even reminded listeners of the Conservative role in the old long-form-census dispute. No doubt he thought this was frightfully clever. But Statistics Canada hoovering up bank statements is a phenomenon with much, much higher political stakes than the pettifogging, somewhat symbolic long-form fight.

Hell, even the statistical stakes are higher. Trudeau cannot afford to answer “Why are you Liberals peeping into our bankbooks?” by saying, even indirectly or by implication, that it will help him do nice things for all the nice people. This is a temptation he should resist, if it’s in him to do it.

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