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Commissioner Therrien shares lessons learned from Statistics Canada investigation with United Nations Statistical Commission

March 12, 2020

Privacy Act Bulletins (formerly Privacy Commissioner Alerts) are intended to offer lessons learned, best practices and other important privacy news, trends and information related to privacy protection in the federal public sector.

Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien recently took part in a panel at the United Nations Statistical Commission in New York City.

The panel, called Balancing privacy and the need for statistical information – Necessity and proportionality, examined issues related to how national statistical offices around the globe are leveraging non-traditional sources of data in a bid to supplement existing information sources and support evidence-based decision-making.

In his presentation, the Commissioner outlined several lessons learned during his office’s investigation into Statistics Canada.

Commissioner Therrien says the investigation findings highlight for other federal institutions the importance of assessing and addressing privacy risks prior to implementing initiatives that involve the use of data holdings, in line with the federal government’s overall data strategy. This would include undertaking Privacy Impact Assessments (PIAs) and consulting early with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.

Commissioner Therrien underlined in his presentation the importance of maintaining a full and open consultation with data protection authorities during the development stage of sensitive programs so privacy concerns can be identified at the earliest stages and advice can be provided based on the complete picture of a program.

“While our investigation was about Statistics Canada, we are speaking today because of its potential relevance for every statistical agency around the world that shares these data challenges and opportunities, as well as responsibilities to respect citizens’ privacy rights,” he said.

“All statistical agencies share the contemporary obligation to incorporate privacy into their program design. Failure to do so not only presents a risk to privacy but can also erode the public trust that statistical agencies require to do their work.”

Statistics Canada ultimately agreed to follow the recommendations issued by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner and not implement the projects as originally designed. Statistics Canada is working with the Office to develop and implement policies and procedures aimed at incorporating necessity and proportionality more broadly into its statistical methods.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner has welcomed Statistics Canada’s commitment to making changes that will integrate better privacy protections into future statistical initiatives.

The United Nations Statistical Commission, established in 1947, is the highest body of the global statistical system. It brings together the Chief Statisticians of member states from around the world. The Commission met for its 51st session in New York City between March 3rd and 6th.

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