Thursday, July 22, 2010

Statistics and Your Privacy

In recent days, the mainstream media has been covering the Conservative government's recent moves to replace the mandatory long-form census with a voluntary long-form. Reactions to this decision have run the gamut from the libertarian viewpoint rejoicing that Canadians can retain a bit more of their privacy to the Liberal Party's response demanding a meeting of the Industry, Science and Technology Committee to force the Conservatives to explain the changes. Maybe the Harper government does have some "under-the-table" nefarious purpose behind the changes. Who really knows? The most interesting response came late Wednesday from Canada's Chief Statistician Munir Sheikh, the head of Statistics Canada. Mr. Sheikh informed the media that he was resigning from his position because he feels that a voluntary survey cannot take the place of the mandatory long-form survey that it is replacing. Here is a quote from his letter of resignation:

"I want to take this opportunity to comment on a technical statistical issue which has become the subject of media discussion. This relates to the question of whether a voluntary survey can become a substitute for a mandatory census.

It can not."

I have to give Mr. Sheikh one thing, he's a principled civil servant who puts his money where his mouth is.

In the past, I have been a recipient of the long-form census. It asked a great number of questions that I was very uncomfortable answering. Perhaps Mr. Sheikh does not mind sharing personal details about his life with the government but I do. There are questions that even my extended family would probably not ask and yet, government invasion into my privacy is seen something that I have to tolerate under threat of law.

Many organizations are lamenting the loss of a source of data that they claim is irreplaceable. I would suggest otherwise. Here is a letter that is given out to households that are forced to participate in Statistics Canada's Labour Force Survey from which the monthly Employment Statistics are compiled. As you can see, I've highlighted the line where Canadians are told that their participation in the Labour Force is required by law:

Along with the letter, participants also receive a nice colour brochure that touts the advantages and importance of the survey and explains how it works.

Basically, participants get called once a month for six months and get asked their employment status, whether it has changed, whether they have looked for a job etc. I've highlighted a small section of the brochure where it states that "...The survey sometimes includes supplementary questions on special interest topics such as energy use, housing, education, retirement, income and expenditures.". This is where I start to get a bit uncomfortable. The government already has access to my income statistics through my annual tax return; I realize that information is not supposed to be shared between government departments but come on, how many times do I have to tell them how much I make? Basically, as outlined below, the Statistics Act states that I have to answer their questions under penalty of law should I be inclined to decline to answer questions about my energy use or education. While the current government has ridded us of the need to tell them how many bathrooms or bedrooms are in our house on the census long-form, apparently, there still is a backdoor into our private lives that is going unchecked.

As stated under the Statistics Act, here are the penalties for refusing or neglecting to answer the questions or answering the questions falsely that are posed to you by Statistics Canada employees or refusing or neglecting to fill in and return a form that Statistics Canada requires you to fill out.

False or unlawful information

31. Every person who, without lawful excuse,

(a) refuses or neglects to answer, or wilfully answers falsely, any question requisite for obtaining any information sought in respect of the objects of this Act or pertinent thereto that has been asked of him by any person employed or deemed to be employed under this Act, or

(b) refuses or neglects to furnish any information or to fill in to the best of his knowledge and belief any schedule or form that the person has been required to fill in, and to return the same when and as required of him pursuant to this Act, or knowingly gives false or misleading information or practises any other deception thereunder

is, for every refusal or neglect, or false answer or deception, guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding five hundred dollars or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months or to both. 1970-71-72, c. 15, s. 29.

Note that you can be fined up to $500 and/or spend three months in jail. I find that totally out of line considering that, in the grand scheme of things, the offence is not that serious. If you don't wish to answer questions posed about your income or other very private issues when Statistics Canada comes knocking at your door, that is not an option under the Statistics Act.

So much for privacy.


  1. I would not consider this political hack principled unless he is returning some of his pension and openly respecting the peoples choice of government (which he is not). If he was principled he would have resigned before the media storm, or after not during and he would have done so for personal reasons and quietly.

    Our civil service is full of liberal supporter like Sheikh. If citizens are to ever have a say in government we need them gone and replaced with people who will respect our choice of government and not work against that choice.

  2. JB, if he was principled, he would have resigned when he felt it would have the most impact. Which is precisely what he did. In what world does taking a principled stand mean disappearing quietly into the night?

    Privacy is pretty much the only real concern here, and it's quite a red herring. StatsCan's reputation wrt privacy is unimpeachable.

    Basically, we're spending more tax dollars to have an inferior dataset. And the shortcomings are going to have to be made up for by hiring private polling firms at even greater expense. This is not a defensible position for a fiscal conservative. Do you really trust a private company with your information more than you trust the agency that wrote the book on confidentiality?

  3. I can't believe you want to open the vault that is the Canada Revenue Agency to mine for information! Do you know the kind of intimate, personal details they have? Sure, it will all come without your name on it, but seriously, wouldn't it make you squirm to know that 34,000 men in Peterborough use Viagra--if you lived in Peterborough, and, uh, claimed some prescriptions last year?

    Once they have access--they have access!

  4. I know this is an old article (5+ years), but the issue hasn't gone away. I do not see under the Statistics Act that surveys are mandatory. In fact, Section 8, which deals with surveys, explicitly states "... where such information is requested section 31 does not apply in respect of a refusal or neglect to furnish the information."

  5. I would be curious to know if Section 8 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is relevant with respect to privacy and if the Charter Supersedes the Statscan Act. Also Section 264 of the Criminal Code for the overpaid employees that continue to harass citizens with prosecution if they do not participate in the LFS