Putting Human Rights at the Heart of the Design, Development and Deployment of Artificial Intelligence

The Digital Society and Human Rights: Putting Human Rights at the Heart of the Design, Development and Deployment of Artificial Intelligence

By Jack Poulson
March 14, 2019
Human Rights Council 40
Room XXVII, Palais des Nations, Geneva

Given my experiences with Google over the last year, I find the wording of the title of this event doubly relevant. One of the reasons will become very clear later in the statement, but the other is the explicit usage of the terminology “Design, Development, and Deployment”. The distinctions between these stages, and the at-will ability of a CEO to instantly shift a project between the development and deployment phases, has played a central role in attempts from its own employees, the press, human rights organizations, and government to call on the company to clarify its red lines on censorship and surveillance.

Design’, ‘develop’, and ‘deploy’ are also terms of art within Google’s public commitments – via its “AI Principles” – to not build harmful technologies. The genesis of these commitments was Google’s contract with the Pentagon to build AI to track targets within drone surveillance footage – as part of Project Maven. Many employees felt that Google building tools to increase the lethality of a weapons system was crossing a red line as a company.

In June of 2018, as a result of months of collective employee escalations over Project Maven, Google publicly released a set of ‘AI Principles’. Beyond an explicit commitment to not develop ‘AI for use in weapons’, the AI Principles committed Google to not ‘design or deploy’ AI in four areas:

1. “Technologies that cause or are likely to cause overall harm.”

2. “Weapons or other technologies whose principal purpose or implementation is to
cause or directly facilitate injury to people.”

3. “Technologies that gather or use information for surveillance violating internationally accepted norms.”

4. “Technologies whose purpose contravenes widely accepted principles of international law and human rights.”

Yet, at the very moment these principles were released, hundreds of Google employees had been tasked – as part of Project Dragonfly – with secretly developing a version of Search to comply with the censorship and surveillance demands of the Chinese Communist Party. As employees would learn months later (and I would personally witness), this included Google building a blacklist for terms such as “human rights”, “student protest”, and “Nobel prize”. Employees – again, including myself – also observed a prototype interface allowing users’ Search queries to be trackable by their phone number.

Needless to say, there is a conflict between Google’s AI Principles commitment to not “design or deploy” “technologies whose purpose contravenes widely accepted principles of […] human rights” and Google designing and developing a blacklist which would literally censor the statement of the principle and any other discussion of “human rights” – including the title of this event.

After Project Dragonfly was first revealed to the public – and to most Google employees – on August 1, 2018, numerous human rights organizations released statements of concern and calls for clarification from Google. An important milestone was an August 28 open letter co-authored by 14 human rights organizations and several academics which called on Google to:

* Reaffirm their 2010 commitment to not proactively censor Search in China,

* “Disclose its position on censorship in China and what steps, if any, Google is taking
to safeguard against human rights violations”, and

* “Guarantee protections for whistleblowers”.

When the letter was published, I was weeks into internally escalating the issue within Google – resignation letter in hand – and had a meeting on the subject booked for August 30 with the head of AI research at Google, Jeff Dean. Given the combination of the AI Principles commitment to not violate human rights, and the coalition letter from 14 human rights organizations expressing concern, there was a clear argument that Dragonfly was violating Google’s public promises.

But I found that, without a trusted enforcement mechanism, a company can simply deny that it has violated its human rights commitments. Indeed, Dean dismissed the claim on two fronts: human rights organizations are external entities with incomplete information – nevermind that that their requests for clarification were rebuffed – and that I had no proof that Dragonfly’s forfeitures were worse than what Google must provide to the US government through FISA warrants. In other words, Google’s response to an employee’s credible human rights concerns was to discredit human rights organizations as uninformed outsiders and equivocate human rights violations as a necessary part of running a business.

Other senior leadership at the company has similarly deflected inquiry: when Google’s Chief Privacy Officer, Keith Enright, was asked by the Senate Transportation Committee in September about the details of Project Dragonfly, he replied that he was “not clear on the contours” of the project under the pretext that it was not yet in the deployment phase. Similarly, when Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, was asked about the details of Dragonfly by the House Judiciary Committee in December, his responses overwhelmingly centered on the defense that, at that moment, there were no plans to deploy the project. Google’s Chief Privacy Officer and Chief Executive Officer both deflected government inquiry with the implicit argument that the design and development phases were off limits for human rights scrutiny.

Beyond deflection, Google’s CEO publicly defended Dragonfly’s censorship of human rights information and political inquiry in October by arguing that “well over 99 percent” of queries would not be censored. That is, Google’s CEO publicly defended human rights violations as an ignorable edge case.

Google’s response to Dragonfly can be taken as a case study in the techniques that companies are likely to use to suppress internal and external criticism of, and inquiry into, their human rights standards. At the moment, business human rights commitments are vague gentlemen’s agreements with no trusted third party to serve as a mediator for escalations – companies can and will deny the veracity of any significant criticism.

Lastly, we must change the implied norms of inquiry into technical projects so that accountability is required not just in the deployment phase, but also during design and development. Allowing companies a pass on human rights violations during “exploratory” phases not only neutralizes whistleblowing and attempts at clarifying red lines, it also normalizes and incentivizes the violation: The exploration phase likely entails the creation of an entire division of the company whose career interests are aligned with the violation.

The UN is the central entity that defines and protects international norms for human rights. I therefore believe it has an imperative to push tech companies to clarify and engage on the human rights implications of their research and products. And this should especially hold for companies which, like Google, publicize their participation in the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights.

In Ford’s Own Image: Re-shaping Ontario’s Government Web

By Nicholas Worby, February 22, 2019

Picture yourself as an activist or a journalist five years from now in Ontario…You need to research climate change policies during the transition from the Wynne to Ford governments. Where do you begin? A Google search? A trip to the library stacks? I work as a librarian supporting government information research. These questions are my bread and butter.

A researcher looking for physical copies of 2019 documents in a library several years from now will likely come up empty-handed. The Ontario Government has progressively distributed fewer and fewer titles in print over the last fifteen years. Why would they? Is not the web the pre-eminent public dissemination channel for government information?

For a variety of reasons, electronic government information is neither stable nor is its access guaranteed. Material can be removed for the sake of currency like outdated driver’s handbooks, for compliance with accessibility standards, as a result of changes to web technology or because of a lack of perceived interest. However, government websites are not simply non-partisan clearinghouses for documents. Government web content also shifts around with the priorities of those in power. Students and citizens may fall prey to the assumption that public documents, once published online, are perpetually accessible with a click of a button. In the United States, such assumptions have been challenged by the Trump administration’s rapid and well documented censorship of the Environmental Protection Agency.1234

Similar to Trump, Ontario’s recently elected premier campaigned on ending environmental protections, including the provincial Cap and Trade Program and loosening environmental regulations to better suit the needs of business.567 The original version of Bill 66 was a realization of Doug Ford’s campaign rhetoric as the Bill sought to enable “open for business” by-laws to circumvent or repeal much of Ontario’s existing environmental protection legislation. Like Trump and the Environmental Protection Agency website, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change (now Environment, Conservation and Parks) website is now a reflection of the Ford government’s stance on environmental issues. Anyone needing access to online content from the previous Ontario Government is at a significant disadvantage. The web changes fast and stakeholders interested in this information have limited time to capture these changes.

On June 29th, Doug Ford assumed the premier’s office and his cabinet was sworn in. Web archived versions of the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change (MOECC) website shortly before June 29th and the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks (MOECP) website shortly after June 29th reflect a drastic refocus of the Ministry’s objectives. University of Toronto Libraries captured these initial changes by harvesting the websites before and after the change of power (see Appendices i-iv).

The first and most obvious change is the renaming of the Ministry and the subsequent change to the URL.

The next most significant change is the removal of any mention of “climate change”. Within four days of assuming office, the only mention of climate change on the MOECP website was a reference to the now repealed Climate Change Mitigation and Low-carbon Economy Act.

Flagship policy documents like the Wynne government’s Climate Change Action plan were moved from the MOECP site to generic Ontario.ca pages. Similarly, reference to all climate change mitigation initiatives were removed. For example, the Green Ontario Fund, which was a “not-for-profit provincial agency” tasked with distributing funds from the Ontario carbon market into greenhouse gas reducing initiatives, was cancelled on June 19. The Agency’s own website, including the Agency’s memorandum of understanding with the provincial government, was scrubbed of content the same day.8 Currently, the memorandum of understanding can only be found on web archived versions of the Agency’s site.

Casual viewers of the June 27 MOECC site and July 3rd MOECP site will be struck by the lack of content on both. Most ministry websites were already streamlined when they were transferred to a common Ontario.ca template. The Ontario.ca ministry sites generally aim to only contain the last three years content, resulting in the removal of years of historical material.9 Even with limited historical content, these sites continued to contain critical information for researchers and members of the public wanting to understand the actions of government at the ministerial level.

The absences pre and post June 29 are more than a bit of additional whitespace. There are and continue be significant omissions in all iterations of the MOECP site following the transition to the Ford government. Since Ford came to power, current mandate letters issued by the premier to individual ministers outlining their objectives for the year have not been added to ministry websites. The Ford government has refused to release the letters, which were once available to the public openly online, even in response to Freedom of Information Act requests.10 Also missing are the Wynne era Published Plans and Annual Reports. These reports detail ministry priorities, the year’s work plan in broad strokes and outline the performance of each ministry over the last fiscal year. The last few years of Published Plans and Annual Reports can be found online through searching the main Ontario.ca site; however, to do so requires insider knowledge of titles and government publication practices. In effect this means that the documents remain buried in the archives. Design choices made by the Government further hinder finding the documents through web archived versions of the site.11 While the Ford government wanting distance from Wynne era policies is not surprising, the extra effort required to find Wynne era reports significantly complicates the work of Ontarians wanting to fact check Ford administration claims about the previous government.

Your work looking for Wynne era public documents may be even more complicated. Theoretically, documents that are removed from government websites are supposed to be deposited with Publications Ontario. As of writing, the last few years of Ministry of Environment and Climate Change publications have yet to be added to Publications Ontario’s online catalogue. Publications Ontario’s official mandate also excludes important classes of documents including “technical and scientific reports.”12 If you are lucky, you will be able to consult web archives for point-in-time versions of websites containing documents of interest. If you are less lucky, you will have to plumb through the finding aids and records at the Archives of Ontario. If you are truly unlucky, you will need to file a Freedom of Information Request if your records have not yet been destroyed under records retention policies or transferred to the Archives, but cannot be sourced from government or anywhere on the internet.13 Imagine needing to engage in the time intensive and often expensive process of filing Freedom of Information Act requests, navigating internal policies, dealing with wait times and appeals for every four year old public document only recently removed from Ontario.ca? The public documents you need will likely still be available; however, the added labour required of you is a far cry from having access to print government publications placed sequentially on a shelf in your library. This extra work is a disincentive for researchers trying to critically analyze the work of government and runs counter to one of the major purposes of the Archives and Recordkeeping Act: “to encourage the public use of Ontario’s archival records as a vital resource for studying and interpreting the history of the province.”14

Public web archives are an excellent resource for providing access to statements and publications that were once online. Currently the Government of Ontario does not have its own public facing web archive. University of Toronto Libraries, using the nonprofit Internet Archive’s subscription service Archive-It, crawls Ontario Government ministry sites twice a year. This work is done by a very small staff, is contingent on annual funding and is executed without the explicit legislative mandate of government organizations like the Archives of Ontario. Web archives are only a partial solution. They are only effective if the information is ever published.

It remains to be seen if the Ford government will bury or withhold future public information regarding climate change or other topics at odds with its agenda. Reducing or burying web content may seem like a small issue, but if viewed in a larger context of the current government’s approach to controlling scrutiny it is disturbing. Independent offices of the Legislature like the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario have been weakened through mergers.15 Once publicly accessible documents like mandate letters are no longer open-by-default and require Freedom of Information requests.16 Things as basic as press freedoms are challenged by the creation of hyper-partisan government funded news channels and PC staffers disrupting reporters’ questions at press conferences with strategic applause.16 Ontarians are at risk of having fewer avenues of finding information and challenging the discourse around vital issues like climate change. This past year may either be an aberration or it may be a turning point where Ontario stopped taking government transparency seriously. It is possible we may not be able to effectively study the Ford government using public documents at all.

Appendix i

June 27 Capture of http://www.ontario.ca/page/ministry-environment-and-climate-change/

Appendix ii

July 3 Capture of http://www.ontario.ca/page/ministry-environment-conservation-parks/

Appendix iii

June 27 capture of MOECC site

Appendix iv

July 3 capture of MOECP site


1. http://time.com/5075265/epa-website-climate-change-censorship/

2. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2018/05/04/it-has-been-more-than-a-year-since-epa-took-down-its-climate-website-for-updating/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.c707b045b934

3. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/nov/01/epa-website-climate-change-trump-administration

4. https://ourrighttoknow.ca/international-time-line/#1513879878713-ffcbb0a0-c4f2

5. https://torontosun.com/news/provincial/cap-and-trade-pumping-ontarians-dry-pc-leader-ford-says

6. https://www.thestar.com/news/queenspark/2018/03/25/doug-ford-says-he-will-cut-red-tape-to-revive-ontario-manufacturing-jobs.html

7. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/toronto/article-doug-ford-promises-big-chunk-of-ontarios-greenbelt-to-developers/

8. https://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/with-greenon-rebate-cancellation-unbelievable-window-of-opportunity-closes-for-ottawa-business

9. Craig. S., Murphy, M. (2019). Inside track: Challenges of collecting, accessing and preserving Ontario Government publications. In Li, S. & Wakaruk, A. (Eds.), Government information in Canada. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press.

10. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/ontario-government-refuses-to-release-doug-ford-s-mandate-letters-to-cabinet-ministers-1.4802643

11. http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/webarchive/guidance/

12. Ontario. Management Board of Cabinet. (1997). Government Publications Directive.

13. Note: Detailed records retention schedules at the ministerial level are currently not available to researchers: https://www.ontario.ca/data/archives-ontario-records-retention-schedule-database

14. Archives and Recordkeeping Act, 2006, S.O. 2006, c. 34, Sched. A; 1(c).

15. https://toronto.ctvnews.ca/ontario-weakening-environmental-oversight-by-merging-watchdog-with-auditor-advocates-1.4202782

16. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/ontario-government-refuses-to-release-doug-ford-s-mandate-letters-to-cabinet-ministers-1.4802643

17. https://globalnews.ca/news/4363921/ontario-news-now-twitter/

Premier Ford directive on free speech.

Premier Ford issues a directive that all Ontario Universities must develop a free speech policy that will be monitored on a yearly basis. Failure to develop such a policy or to abide by it will result in withdrawal of funds from the university. This policy will require “discipline measures” against students who engage in “disruptive protesting that significantly interferes with the ability of an event to proceed” and requires student unions to comply with the rules otherwise their “ongoing financial support or recognition” will be revoked. The intent is to create a safe space for anti-abortion groups and alt-right speakers.

Canada’s New Statistics Act

By Wayne Smith,  January 14, 2018

On December 12th, 2017, the government’s bill to amend the Statistics Act (C-36) received Royal Assent and became law, having moved through both the House of Commons and the Senate without amendment. During this process, a number of concerns about the bill were raised by various stakeholders in the national statistical system but these did not garner any significant public attention, and were entirely ignored by Minister Bains.

There is much that is positive that can be said about the new amendments to the Statistics Act. They do, to a significant extent, insulate the Chief Statistician from political pressure that might cause him or her to act contrary to the interests of the statistical system. By vesting the operational powers of the Act directly in the Chief Statistician, the amendments give him or her firm control over decisions regarding statistical methods, operations, and dissemination, while accepting that the political level must have a significant role in deciding what statistics are collected.

The amendments impose a politically unpalatable process should any future government seek to direct the Chief Statistician to carry out any specific action. Under the Westminster parliamentary system, even though powers are assigned to the Chief Statistician under the Act, this does not preclude the Minister instructing the Chief Statistician to carry out actions on matters under the Chief Statistician’s authorities as summarized in the previous paragraph. The amended Statistics Act requires that the Minister seek the approval of the Governor in Council (Cabinet) to issue any such instruction, and further requires that “Within 15 days after the day on which an order is made, the Minister shall cause a copy of the order to be tabled in each House of Parliament.” Since such an order would imply the disagreement of the Chief Statistician with the proposed action, an intervention of this nature would likely be as controversial as attempting to amend the Statistics Act to achieve the same purpose.

Also in the new law is formal recognition of a statistics advisory council of statistical stakeholders to advise both the Minister and the Chief Statistician; another important bulwark in protecting the independence of Statistics Canada by creating a watchdog council.

Two other important measures were included in the amendments. The first responds to concerns raised by historians and genealogists by rendering individual census records public 92 years after collection. An anomaly will exist for the 2006, 2011 and 2016 Censuses where the consent of the individual will continue to be required for the disclosure to occur (this was the commitment made to respondents in those censuses).

The second measure eliminates jail terms as a penalty for persons who refuse to participate in Statistics Canada surveys identified as mandatory by the Chief Statistician. Financial penalties remain. Jail terms are now generally considered to be excessive for refusal to participate in a survey.

For all that is positive about the new legislation there are also some significant shortcomings. I will address three of them.

The first, and by far the most significant, is the failure to include in the amendments a transparent, merit-based selection process for the Chief Statistician driven by a search committee of non-political stakeholders in the statistical system. The government has argued that it has imposed on itself a new merit-based process for most Governor-in-Council appointments which it has decided will be used for selecting the Chief Statistician. The problem with this solution is that the government’s new process is not binding on the government for any specific future appointment and it is certainly not binding on any future government of whatever stripe. If the government can appoint a person selected primarily on the basis of their willingness to do the government’s bidding, not only is the objective of the legislation defeated, but the legislation is now perversely protecting someone who should not have been appointed.

It has been noted that, in the past, no government has made an overtly political appointment. It can be responded that the whole purpose of the Bill was to avoid reliance on convention by legislating. It is also true that, until the 2011 Census, no government had attempted to make a portion of the Census questions voluntary, but they could under law and they did. Again, this is why convention is not enough. It is also noteworthy that the government’s new appointment process is dysfunctional with a growing backlog of vacancies. It remains highly opaque and provides for no verification that appointments are in fact merit-based.

The second significant shortcoming is the failure of the amendments to prevent a future government from again making a portion of the Census of Population voluntary. The provisions governing the Census are essentially unchanged. It is still the Cabinet that ultimately decides what questions will be asked in the Census, whatever the recommendations of Statistics Canada. Nothing in the amendments attempts to define the required scope of a Census. Imagine that in 2021 the government of the day decides that the Census will consist of 10 basic questions and that any additional questions can be part of a survey piggy-backed on the Census, provided that those questions are asked on a voluntary basis. Statistics Canada can decide whether it will undertake such a survey, but the choice is between nothing or something statistically viable, but of much lower quality than a full mandatory census.

The third and final shortcoming is the failure of the government to deal with Statistics Canada’s forced and debilitating dependence on Shared Services Canada. The government is continuing on the informatics centralization path despite the sharp criticism of Shared Services Canada in the Gartner report commissioned by the government, despite the Phoenix catastrophe (covered in the recent report of the Auditor General among other documents and news stories) and the abandonment of a number other similar grand schemes, and despite strong concerns raised by a number of deputy ministers and agency heads. CBC reporter Alison Crawford of the CBC has been following this file. Her 2016 report regarding the relationship been Shared Services Canada and RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson based on documents obtained through Access to Information is one example.

Since my resignation, the situation at Statistics Canada has scarcely improved. Service outages continue to be a feature of life. Full delivery of ready-to-operate key infrastructure that was already a year late at my resignation has still not occurred over a year later. And Statistics Canada has transferred almost $20 million to Shared Services Canada to supply infrastructure that was already funded in earlier transfers of budget. This money would have been better invested in new statistical programs. There is no lack of statistical gaps to fill.

While the government has opened the door somewhat to more flexible arrangements between Shared Services Canada and its clients, the current management of Statistics Canada appears to have no interest in pursuing them.

Minister Bains has suggested there may be another round of amendments to the Statistics Act to address other modernisation issues. Perhaps some of these concerns may yet be addressed. I would note that Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs Science and Technology, charged with studying the government’s bill, did include the following observation in its report to the Senate: “…the committee urges the government to consider using tools including Executive Search Committees or Parliamentary approval to ensure the Chief Statistician is a non-partisan appointment who is independent from the government.”

Wayne Smith

Former Chief Statistician of Canada

From Dan Weaver’s blog – PEARL’s bridge to where?


This is a repost of Dan Weaver’s blog with his permission.

PEARL is saved!

For the moment, anyways.

Yesterday, the government announced it will support science and operations at PEARL, Canada’s high Arctic atmospheric research facility, until fall 2019. That is great news.

Canadians and scientists spoke out. Politicians responded. Science advocacy works.

What’s next? Is this ‘mission accomplished’?

No. Not at all. This is only a first step.

The announced support is “bridge funding,” meaning that it is temporary and short-term. It solves an immediate problem: PEARL was preparing to shut down due to a rapidly approaching end-of-funding horizon in a few months. Many long-term datasets and projects studying how the atmosphere works and how it is changing were at risk. This new funding ensures those measurements will continue. For a while.

What’s on the other end of the bridge?

At the moment, nothing. We’re poised for another funding crisis in 2019. Just like 2017. And 2012. And 2002*. Will I find myself leading another march for science, asking the government to fund PEARL again in a couple years? (I discussed this in a recent Story Collider event: script here.)

This temporary funding for PEARL is necessary because the Trudeau government decided not to continue or replace the existing formal funding mechanism, the Canadian Climate and Atmospheric Research (CCAR) program. CCAR supported several major research projects, one of which was PEARL. CCAR was evaluated by NSERC a year ago (online report & infographic), which recommended continued funding because it provided unique and much-needed support for Canadian scientists. It even noted PEARL wouldn’t exist without CCAR – it “saved PEARL” in 2013. But no money was allocated to continue CCAR in the spring budget, creating a crisis in Canadian climate science funding. Other affected projects are still without a clear path forward.

Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan was quoted by the CBC saying:

Climate change research and the Arctic are far too important and they deserve more than one-off efforts. They deserve a comprehensive, thoughtful, approach.”

She is absolutely right. But what we have at the moment is another one-off effort. What we need next is the comprehensive, thoughtful approach.

CCAR wasn’t perfect. It only had one scale of project funding and was designed to accept proposals only once every five years. The funds had limitations, e.g. PEARL couldn’t pay for electricity using CCAR grant money. And clearly the CCAR structure wasn’t immune from political winds. It existed briefly, to pick up the pieces after an earlier, larger funding program was left to crumble by the Harper government, only to be ended by the Trudeau government. This hardly seems to have been a stable, long-term platform for supporting climate science.

Canada can do better.

We could create a foundation to administer climate and atmospheric research funding. It could be set up at arms-length from the government with an eye on the long-term nature of the issues. It should offer support for research at multiple scales, and have regular calls for new proposals. This was done before, in the early 2000s. It was called the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences (CFCAS), and was ended in 2011 by the Harper government. This precipitated PEARL’s 2012 funding crisis.

CFCAS was a good model that could be used as inspiration for this government’s own solution. Its annual reports are still available online, and outline the enormous impact it had in ensuring that Canada was a leader in atmospheric and climate science – exactly the outcome yesterday’s press release identifies as the big picture goal.

Emergency last-minute funding squeezed out of somewhere is not the way Canada should support important science. We need stable, long-term funding for climate and atmospheric research, guided by a vision for Canadian science and environmental stewardship.

Our next step, as scientists, citizens, and science advocates, should be to push Canada to create a plan to secure Canadian climate and atmospheric science expertise and leadership for the long-term.


* The PEARL Ridge Lab was originally constructed in 1992 by Environment Canada to monitor stratospheric ozone depletion under the name Arctic Stratospheric Observatory, or AStrO. Due to cuts to research funding, AStrO closed in 2002. See, for example, EC’s old webpage on AStrO. It took a few years for Canadian academics to re-open the facility as PEARL. It was significantly expanded under the leadership of Prof. Jim Drummond. 

Dan Weaver at the 80 degree north sign between Eureka, NU and the PEARL Ridge Lab.

Testimony re Bill C-36, An Act to amend the Statistics Act


Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology

Meeting No. 56

Tuesday, April 11, 2017, 8:45 a.m. to 10:45 a.m.


 Our Right to Know

  • Margrit Eichler, President

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

  • Paul Schreyer, Deputy Director, Statistics Directorate (by videoconference: Paris, France)

Statistical Society of Canada

  • Brian Allen, Past-President

As an individual

  • Jean-Guy Prévost, Director, Political Science Department, Université du Québec à Montréal

Speaking Notes by Margrit Eichler, President, Our Right to Know

Thank you for inviting me to speak before you. Permit me to briefly introduce myself. I am a retired Professor of Sociology and Equity Studies. I taught at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto until 2011. I am here in my capacity as President of Our Right to Know. We are a registered advocacy group with the mandate to advocate for the free conduct, communication, publication and archiving of research. Our slogan is “Public Science for the Public Good”. The major data gathering institution in Canada is Statistics Canada. The well-being of Stats Can is therefore close to our hearts.

Although there are a number of issues that could be addressed, I will restrict myself to only one point – the relationship between Statistics Canada and Shared Services Canada.

When we learned that the former Chief Statistician had resigned in protest over the lack of independence of Statistics Canada, we contacted him to learn more. While I have never met Mr. Smith face-to-face, there have been many written and oral exchanges. What we learned from these alarmed us. We then contacted a number of experts to compare their view of the situation with that of Mr. Smith’s. We found no reason to doubt his integrity and veracity.

The Minister, in his remarks during the debate in the second reading of Bill C-36 made it clear that high quality data are needed to be able to make informed policy decisions. He makes a strong and convincing case that this requires independence of the national statistical service. If passed the bill will increase the political independence of Statistics Canada.

We strongly applaud the intent of the bill on this count.

However, given such clearly stated intent it is puzzling that there is no assurance of administrative independence.

Imagine that you were the chef for a huge gala dinner for hundreds of people. The contract has been signed. The overall framework has been agreed upon – the menu has been decided, serving times have been set, sou-chefs will be hired – and then you find out that there is an unanticipated wrinkle: There is a housemaster who will determine which and how many pots you can use at what time, how many burners you may use at what time, and how many and which sou-chefs you may hire. In other words, you realize that you would be in a position of responsibility without the authority to make sure the menu can be served as planned. At this point, you would probably tell your employer to cook the meal himself.

While Statistics Canada’s job is infinitely more important and complicated than creating a gala dinner, however splendid it may be, the agency does find itself in a similar situation: Bill C-36 says:

(5) the Chief Statistician shall ….

(a) decide, based strictly on professional statistical standards that he or she considers appropriate, the methods and procedures for carrying out statistical programs …


(c) control the operations and staff of Statistics Canada.

However, according to Wayne Smith, Shared Services Canada “has complete control of the critical informatics infrastructure supporting Statistics Canada.” This amounts to an effective veto power on the part of Service Canada over “any project, program or initiative of Statistics Canada that requires modifications to informatics infrastructure, and, in the world of official statistics, any significant change does.”[1]

What are the consequences of this arrangement?

  • Delays of major transformational projects, e.g. the Integrated Collection Operations System and the Integrated Business Statistics Platform
  • An unwieldy, user-unfriendly website
  • Idling project teams
  • Delays in delivering needed hardware, problems in maintaining aging equipment
  • Cost estimates disconnected from reality
  • Unnecessary financial difficulties

In other words, for a statistical agency where a primary objective is the production and dissemination of data and information, Service Canada is an inefficient system. It does not allow Statistics Canada to operate at a peak level of performance. It wastes human and financial resources.

We consulted with my former classmate and distinguished CRC Chair Monica Boyd. She is an expert user of Statistics Canada data, and has been seconded 3 times to Stats Can on a visiting Senior Fellow basis.  She described to us three of the recent problems associated with the shift to the Service Canada platform:

  • It has become very difficult to find information
  • How issues are arranged is not always logical
  • Posting of information that normally was routine now appears to be erratic. Recently, a major set of analytical papers produced at Statistics Canada could not be accessed for two weeks.

She considers the relationship between SSC and Stats Can as a “cancer that is slowly affecting the entire system.”

We argue that this is probably due to the fact that Statistics Canada has a different structure and a different logic than the other departments that are serviced by SSC. Most departments deliver programs and services, Stats Can delivers data and analyses. We also want to mention that we are not aware of any other national statistical service in a developed nation that does not grant administrative independence to its statistical service.

To pass the legislation without at the same time removing Statistics Canada from under the control of Shared Services Canada creates a serious set of problems which cannot but hurt what we all want: a truly independent Statistics Canada.

We therefore strongly recommend that complete authority to run its own operations be returned to Statistics Canada in order to enable it to fulfill its duties as outlined in bill C-36.

[1] From a blog written at the request of ORK https://ourrighttoknow.ca/caught-in-the-iron-cage-of-bureaucracy-why-i-resigned-as-chief-statistician-of-canada/

Caught in the ‘Iron Cage of Bureaucracy’: Why I Resigned as Chief Statistician of Canada


By Wayne Smith, Nov 2 2016

In 2011, Statistics Canada was put into an ‘iron cage of bureaucracy’,[1] severely hampering its capacity to fulfill its mandate. The cage – Shared Services Canada (SSC) was created on August 4, 2011, to transform how the Government of Canada manages its information technology infrastructure.  Statistics Canada was required to transfer to SSC all of its data centre, networking, telecommunications and e-mail infrastructure, the corresponding budget and staff directly connected to these functions, and a proportion of its internal services budget to support those functions.  Statistics Canada had no meaningful opportunity to challenge this decision prior to its implementation.  Statistics Canada was stripped of the authority to deliver informatics infrastructure and telecommunications services itself or to contract to third parties for these services.  SSC is therefore an absolute monopoly with respect to the supply of these services to Statistics Canada. Shared Services Canada’s management, however, has no competence in matters of official statistics.

After several years of trying to make the new arrangement work, on August 3, 2016, I wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressing my grave concern over the impact of Shared Services Canada on the independence of Statistics Canada, on Statistics Canada’s ability to protect the confidentiality of respondent information to the level required by the Statistics Act, and on the ability of Statistics Canada to operate effectively and efficiently.  I noted that this was inconsistent with the current government’s public commitment to act so as to reinforce the independence of Statistics Canada.  I advised the Prime Minister that, in the absence of any resolution to the issues raised, I would resign as Chief Statistician of Canada on September 17, 2016 in order to call public attention to my concerns.

This note explains the reasoning behind my letter to the Prime Minister and my determination to either resolve the issues or resign.  It draws on previous writings during my tenure as Chief Statistician of Canada and my letter to the Prime Minister.

Independence of national statistical offices and the need to protect confidentiality of respondent information

First, some background on the notion of the need for independence of national statistical offices and their obligation to protect the confidentiality of respondent information collected for statistical purposes.

The notion of independence as applied to national statistical offices has been developed by international organizations notably, with Canada’s endorsement, by the United Nations (UN) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).  The UN addressed the issue in its Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics adopted by the General Assembly, in resolution 68/261 of 29 January 2014.  In its second principle, the UN wrote:

To retain trust in official statistics, the statistical agencies need to decide according to strictly professional considerations, including scientific principles and professional ethics, on the methods and procedures for the collection, processing, storage and presentation of statistical data.

The OECD in its Recommendation of the Council on Good Statistical Practice, adopted by the Council of Ministers on November 23, 2015 and binding on Canada, recommended that members should:

Ensure professional independence of National Statistical Authorities. To this end, Adherents should ensure that the National Statistical Authorities:

  1. i)     are professionally independent from other policy, regulatory or administrative departments and bodies, as well as from private sector operators, considering that professional independence of the producers of official statistics is essential for the production and the dissemination of objective statistics;
  2. ii)   have the exclusive authority, as part of their professional independence, to decide on statistical methods and dissemination;

iii)   are protected, through the inclusion of explicit provisions in statistics legislation, from political and other interference in developing, compiling and disseminating official statistics.

These provisions of the UN and OECD documents are broadly respected in the legislation and practice of developed countries with the unusual exception of Canada, which is otherwise considered a world leader in official statistics.

Both the UN and OECD have also addressed the importance of the confidentiality of information provided to the national statistical office by individuals, businesses and other organizations for statistical purposes.

The UN Fundamental Principles state:

Individual data collected by statistical agencies for statistical compilation, whether they refer to natural or legal persons, are to be strictly confidential and used exclusively for statistical purposes.

The OECD Recommendation echoes this viewpoint, recommending that members:

Protect the privacy of data providers (including individuals, households, enterprises, administrations, and all levels of government) and guarantee by law the confidentiality of the individual information provided and its use for statistical purposes only.

Canada’s Statistics Act is exemplary in its protection of the confidentiality of respondent data.  The provisions of the Act limit access to confidential data to sworn employees of Statistics Canada.  Section 6 requires employees to take an oath to respect the provisions of the Act. Section 17 makes confidential data holdings secret from anyone who is not an employee. Section 18 limits the use of confidential data to statistical purposes and explicitly prohibits access by courts and police.  It provides inter alia that:

No person sworn under section 6 shall by an order of any court, tribunal or other body be required in any proceedings whatever to give oral testimony or to produce any return, document or record with respect to any information obtained in the course of administering this Act.

Finally, Section 34 makes disclosure of confidential information by an employee a criminal offence punishable by fines and imprisonment.


The role of informatics in official statistics and international precedent.


Second, let’s consider the importance of informatics and telecommunications infrastructure to a national statistical office, and international precedents for arrangements like Shared Services Canada.

Modern statistical offices are critically dependent on informatics to carry out their operations.  Every phase of the statistical process is an application of informatics, from drawing samples, to data collection (internet questionnaires, computer assisted telephone interviewing, computer assisted personal interviewing), to data capture (optical character recognition), to coding and classification (automated coding), to processing, estimation and weighting, to confidentiality control, to analysis (modeling, projections, simulation), to dissemination (web sites).  A statistical office is, in effect, an exercise in applied informatics that depends for its effectiveness on timely, reliable, affordable and effective supply of informatics services.  Modern statistical offices are in constant evolution to increase their efficiency and effectiveness, as well as to respond to the evolving and emerging information needs of data users and stakeholders.  Responsive informatics support is critical.  Anyone who can control the supply of informatics services to a modern statistical office, effectively controls that office and its programs.

I am not aware of any developed country where the national statistical office has been stripped of all authority over its informatics and telecommunications infrastructure. There are two relevant instances I know of where a proposal was made to include the national statistical office in a centralized informatics initiative, the United Kingdom and Australia. In both, after consideration of the imperative of the independence of the national statistical office and of guarantees of the confidentiality of respondent data, the national statistical offices were appropriately exempted from inclusion in the centralization initiative.

Even in Canada, there are precedents that would support exclusion of Statistics Canada from mandatory participation in the Shared Services Canada initiative.  On January 13, 2016, the Courts Administration Service and the Registrar of the Supreme Court of Canada, arguing their need for independence and confidentiality, were granted an exemption from mandatory use of Shared Services Canada by Order in Council.  Agents of Parliament, such as the Auditor General, Official Languages Commissioner, and the Privacy Commissioner, were exempted from the inception of Shared Services Canada from mandatory use of that department’s services, presumably also for reasons of independence

Assessment of the impact of Shared Services Canada on Statistics Canada’s programs

In my letter to the Prime Minister, I noted that, despite the government’s public commitment to further protect the independence of Statistics Canada, that independence had never been more thoroughly compromised than it is at present as a result of Statistics Canada’s forced integration into the Shared Services Canada initiative.  Shared Services Canada now has complete control of the critical informatics infrastructure supporting Statistics Canada.  No significant change to Statistics Canada’s programs or methods can be made without Shared Services Canada’s concurrence, which is not guaranteed.  The bizarre governance around Shared Services Canada creates no obligation on SSC to provide Statistics Canada with any level or extent of support, and creates no accountability to Statistics Canada for any adverse effects of its actions.

If Shared Services Canada refuses or fails to provide an essential service, Statistics Canada has no recourse of any kind and is prohibited from seeking other suppliers or provide the service to itself, even though it is amply capable of doing so.  As a result, Shared Services Canada has an effective veto over any project, program or initiative of Statistics Canada that requires modifications to informatics infrastructure, and, in the world of official statistics, any significant change does.  This is not independence.

I also observed to the Prime Minister that Canada’s Statistics Act provides strong protection for the confidentiality of information obtained by Statistics Canada from Canadians and their institutions for statistical purposes.  Under the Act, this protection is not only from actors outside the federal government, but from all other elements of the federal government itself, including CSEC, CSIS and the RCMP.  Under the provisions of the Act, Shared Services Canada should not be engaged in the management of confidential data unless the necessary staff have been ‘deemed’ to be employees of Statistics Canada by the Chief Statistician, and they should not be ‘deemed’ unless Statistics Canada has meaningful supervision of their activities while they are engaged in the management of these files. While initially I accommodated the involvement of Shared Services Canada employees in the hope that a reasonable governance would eventually be established—one that provided for meaningful supervision by Statistics Canada—at the time of my letter to the Prime Minister I had concluded this would never be the case.  As a result, it was my conclusion that Shared Services Canada’s involvement in the management of confidential data obtained under the Statistics Act is inconsistent with the confidentiality provisions of Act and should cease.

My final observation to the Prime Minister was that the concerns raised were more than academic.  Statistics Canada, at the months preceding my resignation, was being hobbled by the poor quality and high cost of the services provided by Shared Services Canada.  To operate effectively and efficiently, Statistics Canada requires what it long had when it managed its own informatics infrastructure: seamless, effective, efficient, timely and affordable supply.  Instead, even trivial decisions were finding Statistics Canada managers locked in endless discussions with phalanxes of Shared Services Canada managers, where reaching an agreement was no guarantee of actual performance of the agreed action.

Major transformational projects were being delayed by the failure of Shared Services Canada to provide the necessary infrastructure in useful time, pushing off implementation dates, idling project teams and forcing expensive work arounds.   A planned redesign of Statistics Canada’s web site in time for dissemination of 2016 Census results was compromised due to SSC’s failure to supply the physical hardware in time, despite repeated senior meetings to confirm this would occur and reassurances that the necessary timeframes would be met.  Other examples of significant delays of transformational projects include the Integrated Collection Operations System (intended to completely overhaul the way Statistics Canada manages and conducts its survey collection to increase effectiveness and reduce costs) and the Integrated Business Statistics Platform (designed to increase the coherence of business statistics while reducing processing costs).

Repeated demands were being received from Shared Services Canada for transfer of funds to pay for things for which funds had already been transferred or otherwise provided, or that were the clear responsibility of Shared Services Canada.  Cost estimates were often disconnected from any reality, draining program budgets and risking cuts to statistical programs in order acquire necessary infrastructure.  During my tenure, Shared Services Canada made unilateral decisions that put Statistics Canada’s programs and operation at high risk by, for example: failing to properly maintain the principal data centre on which Statistics Canada relies; cancelling service contracts for aging equipment, contracts needed to ensure rapid repair should key equipment fail; failing to maintain capacity in line with operational requirements; and glacial response times when Statistics Canada did agree to pay a second time for critical equipment.

Statistics Canada’s management would never historically, have tolerated the level of risk of a protracted failure of mission critical programs that is now being unilaterally imposed on it by Shared Services Canada.  In the final months of my tenure, Statistics Canada was experiencing an increasing frequency and severity of incidents affecting its operations and the quality and accessibility of its data.  This at a time when the government is asking for innovation and ever more data, and particularly more timely and granular data.  The illogic of demanding more from an organization while undermining its ability to respond to those demands is obvious.  I advised the Prime Minister that the ability of Statistics Canada to operate was at risk and that its stature as a world leading statistical office would eventually be compromised unless the situation changed.


Absent any meaningful response to these concerns and issues, I resigned as Chief Statistician of Canada on September 17, 2016.  My purpose in doing so was to call public attention to a situation compromising the independence of Statistics Canada and its ability to protect the confidentiality of its information holdings to the level required by the Statistics Act and undermining its ability to operate efficiently and effectively in service to Canadians.




[1] This term was coined by Max Weber about 100 years ago. He was concerned about the rise of bureaucracy and the problems that this might create.


By Tim Gray, Executive Director environmental defence, Oct 21 2016

Charities in Canada play a critical role. Canadians look to environmental, health, international development and social justice organizations to collectively express their views and advocate for a better world.

Improvements on issues as diverse as ending acid rain, drastically reducing drinking and driving, and ending smoking in schools and the workplace all were the result of these organizations working to bring public and government attention to key issues that required policy change or development. Most of these organizations are charities and rely on public support for their survival.

Several years ago, the previous federal government launched a series of high profile attacks on environmental, social justice and international development charities that expressed opinions contrary to that of the government. The media, public, opposition leaders and many MPs, including now Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, decried these attacks and committed to end them and to reform Canadian law to ensure charities could speak out.

Do you want to ensure charities can voice the concerns of Canadians? Sign the petition and tell the federal government you value charities’ involvement in creating a better Canadian society and want to see new laws created that strengthen this role.

A new direction to protect and enhance this critical role for charities was reflected strongly last year in the Prime Minister’s mandate letter to the Minister of National Revenue, when he instructed the Minister to undertake reforms to “allow charities to do their work on behalf of Canadians free from political harassment, and modernize the rules governing the charitable and not-for-profit sectors.” The letter continues with a requirement that this should result in a “new legislative framework” to strengthen the sector.

Fast forward to just weeks ago, when Minister of National Revenue Diane Lebouthillier announced the start of a two month, Canada-wide consultation with charities and the public on the rules under which charities should be allowed to speak out in Canadian society.

In a press conference launching the consultation, Minister Lebouthillier remarked on “the critical role charities play in Canadian society and on her commitment to “working in collaboration with charities to maintain a fair system that respects and encourages their essential contribution.”

These were encouraging words because the ability of Canadian charities to participate in shaping public policy is vital for a healthy democracy. Engaging in non-partisan political activity should be a right of all charities in Canada. Sadly, it is now constrained by archaic rules and arbitrary guidelines. This must change.

To be clear, political activity does not refer to supporting a particular political candidate or party but rather advocating for positive change. Many of the improvements that we have in Canadian society – such as strengthening anti-drinking and driving laws, banning smoking from schools and workplaces, and banning chemicals that put holes in the ozone layer – have been created through the efforts of charities and their involvement in public policy work. Canada without the results of charities’ work would not be recognizable to most of us.

The outcome of the Minister’s review must ensure that all charities are encouraged and enabled to participate in public discussions of key issues related to ending poverty, protecting the environment, ensuring equality, and securing a better future for our citizens.

The consultation must result in achieving what the Prime Minister’s mandate letter calls for – a new legislative framework.

We need new laws to protect these rights and we need you to raise your voice to make sure those that want to slow progress do not dissuade or discourage our federal government from acting.

Between now and Nov 25th, the Minister is asking Canadians to provide feedback on the rules governing charities’ abilities to speak out about social change. Sign the petition or better yet email the CRA today at[email protected] and tell the CRA you value the role charities play in securing public policies that improve the lives of all Canadians.

Canadian Research Grant on Right To Know Law

It is welcome news that Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (http://www.cjfe.org) has awarded its 2016-17 Bob Carty Free Expression Fellowship to accomplished recipient Mark Bourrie.

The grant will serve the public interest by facilitating research on the legal and constitutional basis of the public’s right to know.  Advocates will be provided with “a foundational argument, based in history and law, of the right of the public to accurate and sound information”; thus, according to Executive Director Tom Henheffer, “enhancing the democratic process and Canadians’ ability to hold elected officials accountable.”



Citizen Science through the Internet

by Geraldine Lindley, August 2016

I have had a busy time as a citizen scientist lately – counting penguin chicks in Antarctica, and listening to bat calls in warmer climes – all from the comfort of my armchair with cup of tea in hand!

A while ago I blogged enthusiastically about two citizen science experiences working side by side with researchers in the field (i.e. on Nova Scotia and St. Croix beaches). In this blog I wish to talk about a different approach – using the web as a means to participate.

To explain the participation of citizen scientists in on-line data analysis, I have chosen Zooniverse (www.zooniverse.org) as a significant example – a citizen science web portal of the Citizen Science Alliance which is governed by a board of directors from various U.S. and U.K. institutions (www.citizensciencealliance.org). I registered on-line and, as a volunteer “Zooite”, had my pick of a selection of crowd sourced scientific research projects. A research and conservation project on penguins (Penguin Watch) enticed me to view images from a remote camera set up on the Antarctic Peninsula.

Although my interests focus on nature projects (and more specifically it seems, nature projects on beaches), interested citizen scientists can select projects from several general categories. When accessed on March 28, 2016, there were 46 active projects: for example, the Natural World category provides the opportunity to (over 18,000 currently active) volunteers to identify animals from trail camera photos in Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. This category also has a climatology project that helps predict future storm behaviour by analyzing patterns in satellite images. Space projects may have the keen citizen scientist viewing images from far away galaxies; under Humanities, one might get involved in transcribing museum reports (Notes from Nature), or reading war diaries (Operation War Diary). Perhaps of great attraction to many young citizen scientists is the Worm Watch Lab (Biology and physics category) where one can watch videos of nematode worm behaviour to help researchers understand puzzling genetic questions.

Images of wildlife, galaxies, and historical records are just a few of the fascinating discoveries available to the curious after a bit of on-line training. As a citizen scientist one can also join discussion boards for conversation with researchers and fellow volunteers,; and access published articles resulting from research projects.

Citizen Science Alliance states that involving the public in online citizen science projects is essential to cope with the copious amount of data researchers have to deal with – and that “in its first six months Galaxy Zoo provided the same number of classifications as would a graduate student working round the clock for 3.5 years”! I also found it refreshing to read that our brains are still better than computers in ways such as pattern recognition, and the ability to be surprised by the odd; and that indeed, the large citizen science data sets can be useful in training machines to learn. (http://www.citizensciencealliance.org/philosophy.html)

Reflecting upon my limited experience in the realm of citizen science, I thought not only about my fascination with the complexities of nature and my satisfaction in contributing to building scientific knowledge, but I also thought about the larger implications for society. In a general way (without debating the merits of particular research), it may be stating the obvious to say that facilitating scientific research (some of which would likely not be accomplished otherwise due to resource constraints) is beneficial to society.

But a less obvious potential benefit of citizen science participation comes to mind. Could we also be building mutual understanding between citizens and scientists, thus furthering the understanding of research in a broader context? In 1990, in her article Reflections on Science and the Citizen, well-known scientist and social activist Ursula Franklin stated that building this relationship between citizens and scientists a key task for the future. She explained that the scientific method, in its “emphasis on abstract knowledge over concrete experience…has drastically lessened the confidence of people in the astuteness of their own senses.” (Franklin, pg 315) She further identified the problem of undervaluing direct experience as a source of knowledge in favour of scientific experts. Dr. Franklin believed that these two factors “greatly impeded’ the “participation of concerned citizens in political decisions with significant technological or scientific components”. (Franklin, pg 316). However, through working with citizen groups she believed that having ”a strong motivation, a confidence in their own common sense, and a non-competitive atmosphere in which participants are both teachers and learners” provided a base for developing scientific knowledge and becoming “responsible citizen scientists”. (Franklin, pg 316). Thus, these concluding thoughts on citizen science have broadened my perspective of its contribution to the public good.


Franklin, U. (2006). The Ursula Franklin reader – pacifism as a map. Toronto, Ontario: Between the Lines