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Statcan’s plan to harvest private banking info on hold, pending investigation

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  • OTTAWA — Statistics Canada’s controversial plan to harvest personal financial data without people’s consent is on hold until an investigation of the legality and intrusiveness of the project is finished, the country’s chief statistician said Thursday. 

    The federal statistical agency recently caught nine financial institutions off guard by informing them they were required to provide banking information from Canadians in 500,000 households across the country. Canadian law lets Statistics Canada compel public and private institutions, including commercial banks, to turn over data they hold.

    The ensuing public outrage has put a spotlight on Canada’s privacy laws, which critics have called outdated and inadequate in an era where privacy fears are deepening and data is becoming an increasingly valuable commodity.

    The concerns have triggered heated political exchanges in the House of Commons, where opposition MPs have accused the government of state surveillance and authoritarianism. Under frequent grilling by the Conservatives, the governing Liberals have insisted the agency will protect Canadians’ privacy while producing important, reliable data.

    The uproar has also stirred up serious concerns in the financial institutions that were contacted — and prompted federal privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien to launch an investigation into the matter.

    Facing intensifying public pressure, chief statistician Anil Arora told a Senate committee Thursday that the banking-data project will not proceed until Therrien has finished his work and Canadians’ privacy concerns have been addressed.

    “We have not received a single piece of information yet from any of those financial institutions,” he told the committee, which held a special hearing to explore the issue.

    Even so, he said, the data the agency wants would stay secret.

    “Who do we share this information with? No one,” Arora said. “The individual record is not shared with a minister, with a court, with law enforcement officers, CSIS, you name it — nobody gets access to that individual record.”

    Arora defended the “pilot project” as part of Statistics Canada’s efforts to modernize and improve its data-collection efforts, which are meant to help the agency continue providing high-quality information — especially given the rapid expansion of the digital economy. For decades, the agency has provided key data to help guide everything from financial markets to the Bank of Canada to lawmakers drawing up social programs.

    The new plan, however, only became public following a recent report by Global News. Even Therrien, whose office was consulted on the project by Statistics Canada, said he had no idea about its scope until “very recently.”

    “We were all struck in the recent news by the amount of data (sought) from a large number of dwellings in a very detailed way,” Therrien told the Senate committee Thursday. “I think that’s what strikes everyone — large segments of the population — as an important part of the issue.”

    The investigation, which is expected to last months, will conclude whether Statistics Canada’s plan is lawful or not, he said.

    The privacy commissioner also recalled his 2016 recommendation that the law be amended to authorize government agencies to collect data only when necessary, and when the breadth of the information gathered is proportional to the public-policy goals. That would bring Canada’s laws in line with international standards, Therrien added.

    At one point in his appearance, Therrien was asked by a senator whether he thought the government had been transparent about its intentions from the start.

    “I think it was certainly a surprise,” Therrien replied after a pause. “We did not know about the numbers until very recently. I think this is a crucial fact.”

    He continued by saying Statistics Canada took some steps to be transparent, “but obviously they fell way short.”

    “I have to conclude, given where we are today, that the measures that Statistics Canada took were deficient on the issue of transparency, for sure,” Therrien said.

    There were several attempts Thursday to score political points in the committee chamber. Carolyn Stewart Olsen, a Conservative senator, described the data-gathering plan as “almost totalitarian in its scope” and suggested many Canadians will begin to think we’re living in an “Orwellian nightmare.”

    Ann Cavoukian, Ontario’s former information and privacy commissioner, told the committee she’s been hearing concerns the section of the Statistics Act compelling institutions, like banks, to provide records to the agency could be unconstitutional.

    She said amendments are needed — and it’s not just a legal issue, but a moral one.

    “The prospect of surveillance on the part of government is very objectionable to most people, and it’s viewed as a major invasion of their privacy and their freedom,” Cavoukian said. “Justification for the need for personal data from Stats Canada does not justify extracting it directly from citizens’ banks without their knowledge or consent.”

    The committee also heard from Neil Parmenter, who heads the Canadian Bankers Association.

    He said the industry still has many serious concerns about the request and many unanswered questions. The banks welcome Therrien’s investigation.

    Asked if the industry intends to take the matter to the courts, Parmenter said: “I wouldn’t want to pre-judge and speak for individual actions, but I’d say all options are on the table.”

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    Andy Blatchford, The Canadian Press



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    National

    Air force getting more planes but won’t have pilots, auditor warns

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  • OTTAWA — Auditor general Michael Ferguson fired a bullet at the Trudeau government’s plan to buy second-hand Australian fighter jets on Tuesday, revealing the air force doesn’t have enough people to fly the planes it already has.

    Ferguson said military commanders first alerted the government to the personnel shortage in 2016, when the Liberals were planning to spend billions of dollars on 18 new Super Hornet jets to supplement Canada’s aging CF-18 fleet.

    But the government brushed aside those concerns and pressed ahead with the purchase while providing only minimal increases to training and other measures to make sure the Canadian Forces had the pilots and technicians to use the new planes, Ferguson said.

    The Liberals eventually scuttled the Super Hornet plan due to a trade dispute between Super Hornet-maker Boeing and Montreal rival Bombardier, and are now planning to buy 25 used Australian jets for $500 million.

    But the auditor general’s report said the military’s firm assessment – and his own – is that the result will be the same: planes we can’t use.

    “The (Defence) Department stated that it needed more qualified technicians and pilots, not more fighter aircraft,” the report reads: “In our opinion … without more technicians and pilots, the effect on fighter-force operations will be small.”

    Ferguson, whose previous report on fighter jets in 2012 helped blow up the Harper government’s plan to buy a fleet of F-35 jets without a competition, backed up his most recent assessment with some stark numbers.

    For example, in the last fiscal year, 28 per cent of fighter pilots flew fewer than the minimum number of hours needed to keep their skills and 22 per cent of technician positions in CF-18 squadrons were empty or filled by inexperienced staff.

    And between April 2016 and March 2018, the air force lost 40 trained fighter pilots and produced only 30 new ones. Since then, another 17 have left or said that they planned to leave.

    The auditor general’s findings are likely to add fuel to the fire that has been smoldering around the Liberals when it comes to fighter jets, with opposition parties and defence analysts criticizing how the government has handled the file.

    Many have been calling for years for the Liberals to launch an immediate competition to replace Canada’s CF-18s, which are already 35 years old, but the government has insisted on taking its time.

    The government is expected to formally launch a $19-billion competition for 88 new fighter jets next spring, but a winner won’t be picked until 2021 or 2022. The first new fighter jet won’t arrive until 2025.

    In the meantime, despite plans to spend upwards of $3 billion over the next decade to keep them in the air, Ferguson warned the CF-18s and used Australian fighter jets will become increasingly obsolete.

    The $3 billion does not include any actual upgrades to the planes’ combat systems, which have not had significant overhauls since 2008.

    “Without combat upgrades, the CF-18 will be less effective against adversaries in domestic and international operations,” the auditor general’s report reads.

    “Flying the CF-18 until 2032 without a plan to upgrade combat capability will result in less important roles for the fighter force and will pose a risk to Canada’s ability to contribute to NORAD and NATO operations.”

    Unlike in his previous report, in which he raked defence officials over the coals for misleading parliamentarians and ministers about the F-35, Ferguson said most of the current problems are out of the military’s hands.

    That includes the government’s controversial decision in September 2016 to increase the number of aircraft the air force needs to keep ready for missions.

    “It was a significant change as it came at a time when the Royal Canadian Air Force was already facing low personnel levels, was managing an aging fleet and had not yet identified a replacement fleet,” the auditor general’s report reads.

    “The change reduced operational flexibility and would require National Defence to increase the number of available aircraft by 23 per cent.”

    The Liberals have defended the move as necessary to ensure Canada meets its domestic and international obligations, but critics have said it just provided policy cover for the planned purchase of Super Hornets without a competition.

    Ferguson’s report did not delve into the justification for the policy change nor did it review the competition to replace the CF-18s.

    The Canadian Press


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    National

    Canada’s embassies and diplomats unprotected despite warnings, auditor reports

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  • OTTAWA — Canada is not properly protecting diplomats and staff who face security threats at Canadian missions abroad, including many in locations at high risk of terrorist attacks, violence and espionage.

    Federal auditor general Michael Ferguson’s report on security at Global Affairs Canada’s embassies and consulates found “significant” failings in many places that need immediate attention.

    Physical security, such as barriers, video surveillance, alarms and X-ray machines were missing or not working properly.

    Assessments of threats and vulnerabilities at many of Canada’s missions were also woefully out of date and, for a few, missing entirely.

    Construction projects to upgrade security in most of Canada’s missions were at least three years behind, mainly because of poor oversight.

    The AG found many of these problems had been flagged years ago, but recommended steps to address these deficiencies were not in place.

    The Canadian Press


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