The Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC) wants to see Canada become a leader in developing what it calls a “data-driven digital economy”; and to that end is encouraging the federal government to promote a “data marketplace” in which data is treated as a commodity that consumers have a degree of control over and that companies can use in their pursuit of data-driven innovation.

According to ITAC vice president of government relations and policy Andre Leduc, that’s the primary message behind the report, released this week, that represents the Mississauga, Ont.-based industry organization’s contribution to the federal government’s discussion about a national data strategy.

ITAC vice president of government relations and policy Andre Leduc wants to see a national data strategy that makes data a central component of the Canadian economy.

“We need to develop a framework that will allow for the creation of a data marketplace that allows consumers to benefit from and move around data from one vendor to another,” Leduc tells ITBusiness.ca. “That creates some value for consumers, but also a lot of value generation for community and businesses in all sectors of the economy.”

The federal government launched a series of consultations regarding a national data strategy last month, with Minister of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development Navdeep Bains stating that while technologies such as artificial intelligence and big data are presenting “new opportunities for innovators to create jobs and generate prosperity… to spur digital innovation, investment, and job creation in Canada, citizens must have trust and confidence that their data and privacy will be protected.”

Recent discussions around data privacy have included Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which a U.K. research firm took advantage of Facebook’s pre-2014 privacy settings to harvest the data of up to 87 million Facebook users through online quizzes they or their friends may have taken; the European Union’s recently-implemented General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which uses former Ontario Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian’s Privacy By Design framework as one of its key components; and the worry by Canadian enterprises that storing their information in American data centres leaves it vulnerable to government raids under the U.S. Patriot Act.

“We’ve been hearing a lot of rhetoric in the media and public domain around localization, residences, privacy, and trust, and there was too much focus on trying to force them into a one-size-fits-all approach,” Leduc says. “Residency is an issue for a very small portion of data. Same thing with localization. So our response was, the potential that lies in creating a data-driven digital economy is massive, and what we should be focusing on is creating a data governance strategy – federal, provincial, and municipal – whose guiding principle should be bringing that data-driven economy to life.”

Of the organization’s 26-page report, he says, “we wanted to present the considerations, and recognize that these considerations don’t apply to every piece of data out in the public domain.”

No ‘one size-fits-all’ approach

It’s worth noting that in its original announcement, the federal government emphasized the importance of adding diverse points of view to its consultation, something Leduc says ITAC supports as well.

“We’re just giving them more of an industry perspective on what we believe should be the government’s role, which is that the government needs to be a convener,” he says. “It needs to bring the community together… It needs to involve governments at all levels. It needs to bring academia into the room. We need to bring civil society into the room. Only then can we build a real value framework.”

Asked about the reluctance of consumers to embrace the knowledge that their data is being collected for business purposes – an underlying factor in the outrage that greeted scandals such Cambridge Analytica and numerous data breaches – Leduc says he believes that once the federal government has a national data strategy in place, consumers will be more willing to build data-centric relationships with companies because they will be more likely to recognize the benefits of, and appreciate the control they have over, sharing their personal data.

(Indeed, studies have shown that customers are more willing to hand over personal data when they know what’s in it for them.)

That’s why one of ITAC’s key recommendations is developing a value framework for both consumers and businesses: presenting a data-driven digital economy as one that promotes innovation and value by using data to develop new technology and business solutions.

“It doesn’t matter what sector of the economy you’re in: Being able to gather data, whether you’re in mining or oil and gas or forestry or agriculture, and potentially apply artificial intelligence to that data to develop solutions to the problems that you as a company or industry are facing, is a clear benefit,” Leduc says. “And if we do this right, there’s an opportunity for us to be a first mover and start developing business solutions that can be exported globally.”

Of the type of privacy concerns that led to GDPR (and its Canadian equivalents, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act [PIPEDA] and the Canada Anti-Spam Legislation [CASL]), he says that while the privacy advocacy community frames the debate over data usage as privacy versus data sharing, he doesn’t consider it a zero-sum equation.

“Cyber security is a privacy enabler,” he says. “A data-sharing economy can also be a privacy enabler and give Canadians the right control over the right information.”

GDPR not always the answer

Leduc clarifies that he does not believe companies should have unfettered access to data; but he doesn’t believe a universal, unimpeachable right to privacy is the right answer either.

“Look at health care,” he says. “Because we have universal health care and a single-payer system, should Canadians have an unimpeded right to privacy for all of their health data, or should we be able to anonymize some of that health data for use in drug trials?”

“If someone has a communicable disease or a rare form of cancer, and we want to be able to leverage their DNA to run drug trials, we should be able to anonymize and use that information, as opposed to giving somebody the unfettered right to palm their data out of the system,” he continues.

Too many of the discussions around updating PIPEDA, he says, ignore the fact that the legislation appears to have withstood the test of time by doing what it was designed to do: create a balanced framework.

“You want to create a data governance strategy that is clear, balanced, and provides the right incentive for consumers and businesses to innovate, but also allows for companies to have a good understanding of the rules,” Leduc says. “We don’t need a full reset on PIPEDA or CASL; we need fine tuning, increased guidance from Canadian businesses about how to treat data both when you’re collecting it and when you’re using it.”

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