The federal government is set to launch consultations Tuesday on a national data strategy, responding to growing calls for a response from Ottawa to global concerns about how consumer data are harvested and used online.
Data – personal consumer information as well as extensive corporate performance statistics wrought from machines and processed by billions of sensors – have emerged as a lucrative commodity in recent years, fuelling an explosive rise in valuations of Silicon Valley giants thanks to their ability to collect, store and make money from information gathered by connected devices.
But fears about the extent of the data economy have come to the fore this year with revelations of the inappropriate use by Cambridge Analytica of data harvested from Facebook users.
Data privacy and commercialization concerns led to the adoption of tough data protection standards across the European Union last month and have hung over a partnership between public redevelopment agency Waterfront Toronto and Google subsidiary Sidewalk Labs to let the Silicon Valley giant develop a new waterfront community in Toronto, from which it is expected to collect extensive neighbourhood data.
Last month former BlackBerry CEO Jim Balsillie – a leading proponent for a Canadian data strategy – told parliamentarians that data governance was “the most important public-policy issue of our time.”
The storm over data has fuelled concerns in Canada. Data governance experts have warned that in this era of what is called “surveillance capitalism,” Ottawa and other national governments face tough questions, including who owns personal data, who can collect it and what rights and rules go along with data ownership.
“How data is managed will affect everything from economic competitiveness to how fair our elections can be or the rights people [have] to access public services,” said Blayne Haggart, an associate professor of political science and data governance expert with Brock University. “They have to get it right and involve all parts of society in this discussion on a level playing field.”
At the same time, domestic tech firms have pushed Ottawa to ensure that any new data strategy includes opportunities for them to benefit commercially. Many see the Sidewalk Labs deal as a worrying sign of things to come − foreign companies getting preferential treatment and the best access to lucrative market opportunities wrought from Canadian data sources. Domestic firms are hoping that Ottawa instead takes a more strategic approach by fostering opportunities for homegrown companies.
“If Canada is to be a leader in the data-driven economy, we need policies that enable Canadian innovators to capture the scale and scope of data generated by Canadians, which will cause more businesses to be more innovative, create more jobs and generate wealth in Canada,” said Benjamin Bergen, executive director of the Council of Canadian Innovators, which represents many Canadian-based “scaleup” tech companies.
But some warn of the pendulum swinging back too far on data privacy. Jan Kestle, president and CEO of Environics Analytics, a Toronto-based firm that provides data-driven intelligence to 2,000 firms, warned any changes to what she characterized as an already solid set of privacy laws and standards in Canada must strike “a healthy balance” to ensure governments and businesses can still collect data to help serve customers and citizens, while ensuring people know how their information is used and that their privacy remains protected.
Where the government goes is uncertain. An invitation from Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains’ office to industry participants for Tuesday’s launch, obtained by The Globe and Mail, states: “AI [artificial intelligence] and big data are transforming all industries and sections, presenting new opportunities for innovators to create jobs and generate prosperity. At the same time, the explosion of data generation is raising new questions around privacy and security for all Canadians. We know that we must continue to support an innovation ecosystem which can evolve, adapt and respond.”
Sources say the consultations will be in the form of a series of roundtables this summer under the leadership of Liberal MP David Lametti, a former McGill University law professor and founding member of the Centre for Intellectual Property Policy who serves as parliamentary secretary to Mr. Bains. Mr. Lametti’s group is expected to provide a report with recommendations to the minister this fall. A spokesman for Mr. Bains declined comment.