(NOTE: list of RELATED postings at bottom)
by Bill Curry
Canadians strongly oppose Statistics Canada’s plan to obtain personal banking records – and most would not consent to participating, according to a new Nanos Research survey.
The survey suggests the federal government is on the wrong side of public opinion in its defence of the plan, with 74 per cent of respondents either opposing, or somewhat opposing, Statscan accessing those records without permission. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet repeatedly defended it this month in the House of Commons in response to criticism from opposition MPs.
The statistics agency has warned in recent years that its traditional survey methods are becoming less reliable due to declining participation rates. As a result, it is exploring new ways of collecting data by working with private-sector companies.
The plan quickly moved from theory to practice in recent weeks when the agency sent letters to nine Canadian banks informing them it would compel them to hand over the personal banking records of 500,000 Canadian households in January.
The nine banks – BMO, CIBC, Canadian Western Bank, HSBC, Laurentian Bank, National Bank, RBC, Scotiabank and Toronto-Dominion Bank – were caught by surprise. The Canadian Bankers Association expressed concern with the plan and recently said it is considering legal options.
The letters triggered an investigation by the federal Privacy Commissioner, and Statscan said it will not proceed until that investigation is complete.
The agency wants the banking records in order to improve the speed and accuracy of its reporting in areas such as spending trends and inflation. It says individual names will be removed and no identifiable information will be released to the public.
Still, the Nanos survey found that 57 per cent of Canadians would not consent to having their personal banking data shared with Statscan. Only 30 per cent said they would consent, while 13 per cent said they were unsure. Older Canadians were more likely to oppose the plan.
In response to a related question, 64 per cent said protecting the privacy of financial data is more important than helping Statscan better understand consumer behaviour and trends.
Pollster Nik Nanos said Canadians clearly want to have control over their private information.
“Part of the issue here is the lack of consent – that there’s not even an option to give consent, at least as it’s currently being proposed,” he said. “If they want to listen to Canadians, the government should moderate its position. It’s pretty clear that there’s a significant proportion of Canadians that are uncomfortable with financial data being shared – along with their personal information – by the banks to Statistics Canada.”
Chief statistician Anil Arora has said the project would not produce high-quality data if it only collected the banking records of individuals who agree to participate.
“We know that when you have a consent-based or a voluntary model, you are making some very significant quality trade-offs,” he told The Globe and Mail in an interview this month.
Mr. Arora compared the issue to the debate over whether compliance with the long-form census should be mandatory or voluntary: “Because those that say, ‘Yes’ and fill out the form don’t look anything like those that say, ‘No, I won’t fill it out.'”
The survey of 1,000 Canadians was commissioned by Nanos Research and took place from Nov. 3-7. A survey of that size is considered accurate to within plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
It also found that when it comes to protecting their personal financial information, Canadians rank banks ahead of Statistics Canada: Sixty-nine per cent said they would trust or somewhat trust banks to protect their personal information, while 65 per cent said the same about the agency.
Canadians have even less faith in credit-card companies: Only 47 per cent of survey respondents said they would trust or somewhat trust them to protect their personal information
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In my book Data and Goliath, I write about the value of privacy. I talk about how it is essential for political liberty and justice, and for commercial fairness and equality. I talk about how it increases personal freedom and individual autonomy, and how the lack of it makes us all less secure. But this is probably the most important argument as to why society as a whole must protect privacy: it allows society to progress.
We know that surveillance has a chilling effect on freedom. People change their behavior when they live their lives under surveillance. They are less likely to speak freely and act individually. They self-censor. They become conformist. This is obviously true for government surveillance, but is true for corporate surveillance as well. We simply aren’t as willing to be our individual selves when others are watching.