Advisory Council on Ethics and Modernization of Microdata Access - Meeting minutes for April 21, 2022

Date and location

April 21, 2022, 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
Virtual meeting via MS Teams


  • Anil Arora, Chief Statistician of Canada (Chair)
  • Chantal Bernier, National Practice Leader, Privacy and Cybersecurity, Dentons Canada LLP
  • David Robichaud, Ethics Professor, University of Ottawa
  • Len Garis, Researcher and Adjunct Professor
  • Mary Dawson, Lawyer, former Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner
  • Robert Gordon, Strategic Advisor, Canadian Cyber Threat Exchange


  • Cal Marcoux, Chief Information Security Officer, Canadian Institute for Health Information

Statistics Canada guests/support

Jacques Fauteux, André Loranger, Greg Peterson, Lynn Barr-Telford, Mélanie Scott, Janice Keenan, Leila Boussaïd, Eric Rancourt, Tom Dufour, Larry MacNabb, Martin Beaulieu, Julie Trépanier, Patrick Mason, Geneviève Jourdain, Marc St-Denis, Farnaz Ahanin

Introductions and Opening Remarks

Anil Arora, Chief Statistician of Canada

Mr. Arora opened the meeting by welcoming members to the fifth meeting of the Advisory Council on Ethics and Modernization of Microdata Access (ACEMMA). He thanked them for their continuous advice and guidance throughout the years. He noted that their skills and expertise are of the utmost importance to Statistics Canada (StatCan), and essential as the agency continues to modernize in an ethical and responsible manner, while delivering better access to de-identified microdata for researchers and policy makers that benefits all Canadians. Additionally, Mr. Arora noted that the steps in the data life cycle known as the “Four Gs” (gathered, guarded, grown, give) helped to frame the plan of this meeting.  

The retirement of Cal Marcoux and his decision to step down from the committee was noted. Members highlighted his valuable contribution to the success of the council. 

Updates on the Virtual Data Lab project

Leila Boussaïd, Director General, Data Access and Dissemination Branch, Statistics Canada

Ms. Boussaïd shared updates on the Virtual Data Lab (vDL) project, highlighting that it has been in production as of October 2021. She shared positive testimonials received from users and the project’s upcoming plans.

Council members expressed their support for the project and agreed that many reflections have been done to ensure a balance between user-centricity and maintaining the privacy of Canadians when developing initiatives such as the vDL.

Presentation by the Data Ethics Secretariat on the sensitivity scale (in the context of the necessity and proportionality framework)

Martin Beaulieu, Chief, International Cooperation and Methodology Innovation Centre, Statistics Canada;
André Loranger, Assistant Chief Statistician, Strategic Data Management, Methods and Analysis, Statistics Canada (moderator)

Mr. Beaulieu shared progress on behalf of the Data Ethics Secretariat regarding the sensitivity scale and the evolution of the Necessity and Proportionality Framework that was adopted in 2019. The objective is to optimize privacy protection and the production of information when designing a data-gathering approach. The framework was implemented via the creation of the Data Ethics Secretariat and the development of the six guiding principles, Necessity and Proportionality Framework 2.0, and the sensitivity scale. A summary of the six guiding principles was provided. Additionally, Mr. Beaulieu briefed members on the sensitivity scale, a tool currently in development to initiate and facilitate reviews. It was noted that the team is continuing to assess the scale on test projects to ensure it is well integrated into the data acquisition process at the agency

Next steps include communication efforts with partners to refine the process, participation in the international forum on data ethics, continuing training offered, and implementing and refining the sensitivity scale. International guest, Jan Robert Suesser, was invited to provide an external perspective to Mr. Beaulieu’s presentation.

International guest speaker: Jan Robert Suesser

Jan Robert Suesser, member of the International Statistical Institute (ISI) Ethics Advisory Board
Jacques Fauteux, Assistant Chief Statistician, Strategic Engagement Field, Statistics Canada (moderator)

Mr. Suesser started with a historical background to official statistics. He continued the discussion by providing an external perspective to Mr. Beaulieu’s presentation.

Mr. Suesser noted that there is a need to illustrate how the information from official statistics is produced to be useful. The ethical concern deals largely with the interaction between the work of the agency and individuals and society at large. In Canada, there is an overall acceptance of wanting to further understand and provide disaggregated data to inform public debates and policy making. In providing disaggregated data, it is important to measure and disseminate relevant data about inequalities while providing a rationale. The Necessity and Proportionality Framework which StatCan works within is most welcome in this regard, as it provides a rationale as to why the data are being produced. However, it is important to note that the framework does not prevent misuse of data, but rather is a tool used to provide support. The prejudice and stigmatization referred to in Mr. Beaulieu’s presentation are significantly present in public debates with vulnerable populations. Agencies such as StatCan must ensure that they do not create a harmful profile that could propagate stereotypes in collecting the data.

Council members were pleased with presentations and the various elements when looking at the concepts of privacy, fairness, and do not harm. Regarding the sensitivity scale, members cautioned that some questions may sit on a spectrum of a scale rather than the yes/no questions that are currently used in the scale. Members requested that the agency reflect on how to best apply the six guiding principles and the sensitivity scale, and recommended including measures to avoid the collection of excessive data or assure proportional collection before passing to security measures.

Presentation: Secure Infrastructure for Data Integration approach and associated engagement strategy

Patrick Mason, Chief, Data Integration Infrastructure Division
Julie Trépanier, Director, Data Integration Infrastructure Division
Jacques Fauteux, Assistant Chief Statistician, Strategic Engagement Field, Statistics Canada (moderator)

Ms. Trépanier led the discussion with a presentation on Secure Infrastructure for Data Integration (SIDI), noting that StatCan has remained committed to providing detailed data required to address gender gaps, racism and other systematic barriers as part of the Disaggregated Data Action Plan (DDAP). As part of this work, the agency is considering a new SIDI. This set of methods, technologies and protocols will enhance the way StatCan combines its existing data with data from other organizations, while ensuring the confidentiality of records. The team will be carrying out consultative engagements in a five-phased approach to mobilize and gain social acceptance for this approach.

Council members noted that when speaking about mobilization, it is important to outline what is being done in regard to social acceptability and engagement. Building strong partnerships and providing information citizens need is critical. This can be done while showcasing potential for policy-relevant information to be put to good use. Members expressed interest in an increase in linked data and more frequent communication with the provinces. Council members supported the safeguards and framework proposed by the agency and would like an update on SIDI at the next meeting.

Action items

  • Provide update on SIDI progress at next ACEMMA meeting.

Media trends analysis

Janice Keenan, Director General, Communications Branch, Statistics Canada

Ms. Keenan started with an overview of the 2021 Census pilot of social trends reporting systems and described how these tools and framework support the agency’s ongoing modernization of its communications. Using new web-based tools such as Meltwater and HootSuite has helped the agency analyze large volumes of social media conversations in real time. Case studies highlighted how this enabled the success of 2021 Census communications and how communications contributed to the highest online response rate for a census in Canada. As next steps, the agency intends to maintain its transparent communications approach and continue to engage key stakeholders, including the Office of the Privacy Commissioner (OPC).

Council members acknowledged the work done by the communications team to address the question of privacy and social media monitoring tools, and expressed support for how this tool is used to better engage Canadians in a dialogue with their statistical agency. There is a need to ensure everyone understands the potential that is present and what the agency is doing in the notion of a monitoring system, as well as the mechanisms set in place to minimize the risks. Checks and balances, and transparency and rationale will be key to public trust and acceptance. It was asked that the OPC recommendations from February 2021 be shared.

Action items

  • Share the following documentation with members post meeting:
    • Meltwater privacy impact assessment and related documents received from the OPC
    • Relevant text (bilingual) from the OPC 2020-21 annual report and URLs to StatCan’s Social Media Terms of Use and Interacting with Us on Social Media pages

Roundtable and closing remarks

Anil Arora, Chief Statistician of Canada

Mr. Arora thanked members and invited them to share their final thoughts. Members were canvassed to pick a new chair for the committee.

Advisory council action items

  • Next meeting: November 2022 (tentatively)
  • Name alternate committee member as new chair of ACEMMA
  • Questions and remarks from council members for Statistics Canada to consider:
    • To what extent can we build knowledge that informs policy and decision making without being hostage to those who disseminate prejudice and public debate?
    • If an individual or organization begins to mis-portray the information, what is the role of StatCan as a statistical agency to address this?
    • o What are guardrails and limitations currently present when disseminating disaggregated data and statistical information in general?
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