Ontario is announcing a province-wide data strategy that it hopes will find a balance between citizen privacy and support for homegrown companies that collect and use data to build innovations.
Bill Walker, Ontario’s Minister of Government and Consumer Services, will announce the creation of both a survey and dedicated task force to develop the strategy on Tuesday afternoon at the Waterloo, Ont., digital-sleuthing software firm Magnet Forensics. Until March 7, Ontarians can complete a digital survey to offer thoughts about public trust in tech firms’ data collection, the economic benefits that can flow from that collection and how the province can promote data-focused technologies.
“We want to ensure that we have the ability to share data where it’s appropriate, and where beneficial to the consumer and to people broadly,” Minister Walker said in an interview. But, he continued, “a key tenet of that is privacy and consumer protection. It’s going to be always a challenge to find that balance, but we’re open to consulting to people."
Over two decades of targeted digital advertising and social-media saturation, tech companies such as Facebook Inc., Google parent Alphabet Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. have turned data into one of the world’s foremost economic drivers. Only recently have governments begun addressing the implications this shift has for personal-data privacy, as hacks, leaks and data misuse brought the issue to the fore. The European Union largely led the charge when it implemented its stringent General Data Protection Regulation last May; a month later, Canada’s federal government launched its own consultations for a national data strategy.
In Canada, many conversations around the future of the country’s relationship to technology companies have centred around Toronto, where Alphabet’s urban-planning subsidiary, Sidewalk Labs, won the right in 2017 to develop a digital-first “smart” community on the city’s eastern lakeshore in conjunction with the tripartite development agency Waterfront Toronto. While the company has made regular efforts to assure citizens that their information will only be minimally collected and kept in safe hands, suggesting that a third-party trust be left in charge of any potentially identifiable data, it has brought greater focus to broader debates about data collection in cities and the tensions between global tech giants and upstart domestic firms.
The provincial Consumer Services Ministry says it will combine recommendations from the survey and task force into a draft strategy for further public consultation.
Ontario Auditor-General Bonnie Lysyk reviewed Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs’s smart-city project, called Quayside, in her annual report released in December. In it, she called on the province to both consult the public and establish an expert panel to advise on a new policy on smart-city development, including how it intersected with “data collection, ownership, security and privacy,” consumer protection and economic development.
In response to the report, the province wrote that it acknowledged “broader public interest issues around privacy, legal, consumer protection, infrastructure development and intellectual property that could arise from the creation of the first smart city in Canada that the Province needs to study from a provincial government policy framework perspective.”
Minister Walker said that the Quayside project was not directly connected to the decision to design a data strategy. “Data protection and utilization and improving lives is equally important no matter where you are,” he said. Still, he acknowledged the recommendations in Ms. Lysyk’s report: “I’m hopeful the auditor-general would be pleased that we’re actually listening and doing something.”
One of the key, repeated promises of Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government is to remove red tape for doing business in the province. Asked if creating a provincial data strategy might create more impediments for businesses when the federal government is already designing one, Minister Walker said the consultation should reveal where there might already be unnecessary policy duplication between the two levels of government, or areas left unaddressed by Ottawa.
“We’ll put more of our resources and energy into areas where there may be gaps,” he said.
Ben Bergen, executive director of the Council of Canadian Innovators, said in an e-mailed statement that the council’s more-than-hundred member companies welcomed a provincial data strategy. “The growing scale and scope of data generated by Ontarians creates an opportunity for Ontario businesses to be more innovative, create more jobs and more wealth in our province,” he said.