Gillian Tett in the Financial Times: “Late last year Statistics Canada — the agency that collects government figures — launched an innovation: it asked the country’s banks to supply “individual-level financial transactions data” for 500,000 customers to allow it to track economic trends. The agency argued this was designed to gather better figures for the public interest. However, it tipped the banks into a legal quandary. Under Canadian law (as in most western countries) companies are required to help StatsCan by supplying operating information. But data privacy laws in Canada also say that individual bank records are confidential. When the StatsCan request leaked out, it sparked an outcry — forcing the agency to freeze its plans. “It’s a mess,” a senior Canadian banker says, adding that the laws “seem contradictory”.
Corporate boards around the world should take note. In the past year, executive angst has exploded about the legal and reputational risks created when private customer data leak out, either by accident or in a cyber hack. Last year’s Facebook scandals have been a hot debating topic among chief executives at this week’s World Economic Forum in Davos, as has the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation. However, there is another important side to this Big Data debate: must companies provide private digital data to public bodies for statistical and policy purposes? Or to put it another way, it is time to widen the debate beyond emotive privacy issues to include the public interest and policy needs. The issue has received little public debate thus far, except in Canada. But it is becoming increasingly important.
Companies are sitting on a treasure trove of digital data that offers valuable real-time signals about economic activity. This information could be even more significant than existing statistics, because they struggle to capture how the economy is changing. Take Canada. StatsCan has hitherto tracked household consumption by following retail sales statistics, supplemented by telephone surveys. But consumers are becoming less willing to answer their phones, which undermines the accuracy of surveys, and consumption of digital services cannot be easily pursued. ...
But the biggest data collections sit inside private companies. Big groups know this, and some are trying to respond. Google has created its own measures to track inflation, which it makes publicly available. JPMorgan and other banks crunch customer data and publish reports about general economic and financial trends. Some tech groups are even starting to volunteer data to government bodies. LinkedIn has offered to provide anonymised data on education and employment to municipal and city bodies in America and beyond, to help them track local trends; the group says this is in the public interest for policy purposes, as “it offers a different perspective” than official data sources. But it is one thing for LinkedIn to offer anonymised data when customers have signed consent forms permitting the transfer of data; it is quite another for banks (or other companies) who have operated with strict privacy rules. If nothing else, the CanStat saga shows there urgently needs to be more public debate, and more clarity, around these rules. Consumer privacy issues matter (a lot). But as corporate data mountains grow, we will need to ask whether we want to live in a world where Amazon and Google — and Mastercard and JPMorgan — know more about economic trends than central banks or finance ministries. Personally, I would say “no”. But sooner or later politicians will need to decide on their priorities in this brave new Big Data world; the issue cannot be simply left to the half-hidden statisticians….(More)”.