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Editorials Globe editorial: Statscan wants more data, but is that automatically a good thing?

Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer tweeted out an ominous warning this week: “In January, the Trudeau Liberal government will start collecting the personal financial and banking information of 500,000 Canadians, without your knowledge or consent."

Conservative fear-mongering, as the Trudeau Liberals claim? Partly. Mr. Scheer’s tweet left out a critical detail: It won’t be just any branch of the government collecting the data, it will be Statistics Canada, an agency renowned for the stringency with which it protects the confidentiality of the personal data it needs in order to perform its job.

It’s true, too, that the Conservatives have a somewhat simplistic distrust of Statscan’s data-gathering role.

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But that aside, Statscan’s plan to require financial institutions to hand over records of the transactions of 500,000 randomly chosen Canadians is worrisome. We live in a time when the laws and mechanisms protecting our online privacy have not kept up with a growing hunger to harvest personal data for commercial and other uses. Data breaches, such as the one involving Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, are all too common.

Statscan has a reasonable argument for acquiring the data. Canadians do three-quarters of their commercial transactions online; that’s a huge trove of information the agency would love to harvest in order to “improve estimates of gross domestic product, international trade, retail sales, household spending and the consumer price index.”

But no one has demonstrated that the current data available to the agency is so inadequate as to justify requiring banks to hand over their customers' personal information. Do we really need first-quarter economic data to be available on March 31, as one Statscan official suggested?

We believe Statscan has the ability to collect online financial data and keep it confidential. But we haven’t seen a compelling argument for its necessity. Gathering more and more data is not always better, especially when it involves intensely personal information being provided to a government. Canadians have seen where a blind faith in sharing one’s personal data can lead.

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