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Business Commentary Statistics Canada’s quest for your banking records isn’t a 'Big Brother’ move. They already know plenty about you

To hear Conservatives spin it, Statistics Canada’s plan to gather the banking and spending records of hundreds of thousands of Canadians is akin to “Big Brother on steroids” and an “Orwellian intrusion into the lives of Canadians.”

The truth isn’t nearly as sinister. Rest assured, the government is not plotting a massive surveillance campaign to find out what you ate for lunch or your monthly mortgage payment.

Guess what? Ottawa already has your social insurance number – because it gave it to you. And it has your tax returns.

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The government does, however, need better data to provide a complete and accurate portrait of Canada’s economy and society, in real time. As part of a “modernization” of its operations, Statscan wants banks, cellphone companies, retailers and other companies to share more of the so-called big data they have, and leverage them for the collective public good.

As Canada’s chief statistician Anil Arora put it: “Traditional statistics gathering methods are no longer sufficient to accurately measure Canada’s economy and social changes.”

Yes, some of the information Statscan wants to gather is personal. But all personal identifiers, including names, addresses and social insurance numbers, would be removed before any of it is compiled and released to the public. That’s what the agency already does routinely with census data, the monthly household survey and vast amounts of competitively sensitive corporate information.

Statscan has been peeking into our lives for a long time. Unfortunately, response rates from the agency’s traditional surveys have been falling, leaving it with often suspect and outdated data to feed into its key reports. The agency says getting access to financial transactions is vital to producing a timely, accurate picture of the economy.

As it should, Statscan is working closely with the federal Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien to ensure personal data are not put at risk, or shared publicly. It’s up to Mr. Therrien, who last week launched an inquiry into Statscan’s big data pilot project, to set the rules, and then let the agency do its job.

Statscan is hardly unique. Statistics agencies around the world are similarly leveraging big data for public policy purposes. And that’s unambiguously a good thing, according to University of British Columbia economist Kevin Milligan.

“This research is vital to forming good government policy and providing good economic information to the private sector,” Mr. Milligan says. “Statistics Canada should and does work with the privacy commissioner to balance the good that comes from research to the potential challenges to privacy.”

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It’s ludicrous to suggest Ottawa is spying on Canadians. What Statscan is doing is tapping into what the private sector already knows about all of us, and aggregating it for public consumption.

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.

Canadians should be more concerned that there are adequate controls over what these companies are doing with your data. Perhaps Canada’s big banks are resisting giving your data to Statscan because they are more interested in exploiting it themselves.

The more ominous privacy threat may not be Statscan. The greater risk may lie with the major private-sector collectors of big data, many of which are foreign owned and store it all far beyond the reach of the government. And they often operate with far weaker privacy constraints than government agencies.

Governments already know plenty about you. There are census data, passport photos and records, tax filings, municipal property records, health records, driving offences and court records. No reasonable person would suggest this is somehow part of a nefarious Big Brother spying plot.

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The agency’s data-collection pilot is not the problem. It is part of the solution. For years, Statscan’s ability to do its job was eroded by steady budget cuts. The current Liberal government reinstated some that funding in this year’s budget, with an additional $41-million over five years to improve the agency’s ability to do its job.

Worse than collecting more data is having a data deficit. Governments, and businesses, risk making major mistakes without accurate, real-time data.

Worse than Big Brother is Blind Brother.

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