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Confidentiality, privacy and security

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As society comes to depend more and more on information, new problems of individual rights and privacy arise. People want information about many things, such as the latest figures on jobs for school leavers and up-to-the-minute accurate bank balances from automatic teller machines. At the same time, many people are concerned that too much of their information is being stored on computer databases and accessed by persons or organizations unknown to them.

Writers and filmmakers have painted terrifying pictures of futuristic societies in which the thoughts and actions of human beings are controlled by all-powerful computers. Such fears are often exaggerated in the interests of good fiction. However, there are important issues that society must handle to ensure that the rights of the individual are protected in the information age. This chapter discusses some of these issues.

Providing information

People provide information about themselves all the time. To rent a video or borrow a library book, it is necessary to complete a personal information form. Taxpayers and users of government services must also provide details about themselves.

Likewise, banks and large retailers will only issue credit cards to customers if they know something about their income, occupation and family status. Health services collect and store data about each patient they treat.

These are just a few examples of where people are required to provide personal information, much of which is entered into computer databases. The concern is that authorities and other organizations may be able to access and link to such databases. In this way, data profiles (or information pictures) of individuals could be put together and perhaps used in a way that compromises the individual.

In order to protect privacy, personal information must not be used for purposes other than those for which its collection was authorized.

There is also concern that individual privacy and corporate confidentiality may be breached by someone's hacking into computer databases. Hacking usually applies to computer users who gain unauthorized access to large databases and may even amend the data files. Such activity is highly illegal.

Concerns about information privacy are legitimate, but there are many beneficial aspects to the provision of information. Modern society needs information in order to function efficiently. By the same token, people who provide information need to be sure that the confidentiality and security of their data are protected.

Privacy and security

Increasingly, people need more information and better skills in handling it in order to make decisions. As the information age evolves, privacy remains an essential issue to be considered.

In Canada, government and community organizations are always trying to find ways to improve the confidentiality and security of statistical information. For example,

  • holders of data are encouraged to maintain tight security procedures so that only those with authorization can access databases;
  • much more secure telecommunications links are now available for transmission of data between different locations of a particular government agency or business organization; and
  • tighter procedures are also in place to counter the spread of computer viruses.

Statistics Canada's values

Reliability, objectivity and confidentiality are essential, and mutually supportive, in the functioning of the profession of statistics and the operation of a statistical agency.
— Dr. Martin B. Wilk, Chief Statistician 1980-1985

For Statistics Canada, safeguarding the privacy and security of the information provided to the Agency, is a concern of the utmost importance. To make certain that this concern is taken into consideration at all times, we have developed a series of values to help us achieve our goal. These values include:

  • ensuring objectivity;
  • protecting confidentiality;
  • focusing on analysis;
  • reducing the response burden; and
  • establishing professionalism and reliability.

Privacy and security at Statistics Canada

As the national statistical agency, Statistics Canada takes strong measures to ensure that the confidentiality and security of data provided by individuals, businesses and organizations are carefully protected.

All Statistics Canada employees take an oath of secrecy and face severe penalties for any breach of confidentiality. Employees who break the oath may be fined and/or jailed for up to six months.

Information collected under the Statistics Act cannot be disclosed under the Access to Information Act or any other act. The Canada Customs and Revenue Agency, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the courts do not have access to survey responses.

Access ID strictly controlled

All Statistics Canada employees are responsible for ensuring the security of confidential information. Only employees who need to view confidential files as part of their duties are authorized to access them. A network of physical security systems and procedures protects confidential information against unauthorized access.

An important element of Statistics Canada's security system is the electronic protection of survey data stored in computer databases. Statistics Canada uses two completely different computer networks, one internal and one external. Confidential data are stored, transferred and processed on the internal network only, which has no connection with any external network. This prevents any possible external access.

Precautions against disclosure

Statistics Canada publishes data as statistical summaries, tables and graphs. No data that could identify an individual, business or organization, are published without the knowledge or consent of the individual, business or organization. All final results are carefully screened before release. For example, if only two companies make a particular product in one province, we will not publish the provincial sales figure for that product without the consent of both companies. The same is true if three companies make the product, but one or two of them have an overwhelming share of the provincial market. If the figure for one province is not published, the figure for at least one other province is suppressed, to avoid the possibility of working out the missing figure from the national total.

In addition to this suppression approach, other methods can be used in order to eliminate potential risk of disclosure. Some of these methods include: rounding, collapsing, micro-aggregation and data swapping.

What Statistics Canada is allowed to disclose

While the Statistics Act ensures the confidentiality of survey responses, it also provides a way to avoid burdening the respondent with duplicate surveys. The Act allows the Agency to enter into sharing agreements with federal and provincial departments and ministries and with corporations. Respondents are informed at the time of collection if a data-sharing agreement applies to their particular survey.

Respondents may also permit the disclosure of their information by signing a waiver which grants permission allowing a specific topic to be released. Releases of identifiable information are governed by a policy and each must be authorized by the Chief Statistician of Canada.