Data can be unlocked without breaching privacy, say innovation proponents

· The Pulse

Alberta has an opportunity to modernize its laws in a way that makes valuable data more accessible to innovators and entrepreneurs without breaching privacy, say proponents of the innovation economy.

The growth of the data sector comes with rising concerns about personal data. How much is out there? Where is it? Who has it? And what is it being used for? But the harvesting and monetization of personal data that sustains tech giants like Google and Meta, and prompts consumer wariness to lax data and privacy laws, has little to do with the research-friendly data environment envisioned by Reg Joseph, CEO of Health Cities.

"The opportunity around commercialization and economic growth is not — can I repeat? — not about selling data. That is not what we want to do, because actually, it doesn't make sense to do it. It's selling the golden goose," Joseph stressed.

Instead, Joseph said, the province needs to create an environment where the government can work with parties such as academics or industry to unleash the wealth of data in municipal archives or health records while ensuring proper checks and balances are followed to protect the information of individuals from being exploited.

Earlier this year, Service Alberta Minister Nate Glubish signalled the province was considering amending and modernizing existing privacy legislation, in part to make more data accessible to innovators and entrepreneurs. The province announced plans to implement a strategy to "enable data-driven innovation and economic diversification" as part of its 2022 budget, but the details have yet to be released.

In 2021, Ontario announced the creation of Canada's first data authority, an independent entity that acts as a steward of provincially collected data. The data authority will provide researchers, municipalities, and others with "secure and reliable data sources" while setting standards for how it is managed and used.

This is a model that could be co-developed with innovators for Alberta, said Bronté Valk, the Edmonton-based government relations manager for the Council of Canadian Innovators.

"If government is sitting at the table with innovators, and they're developing, and setting the right sort of data standards, and they have this independent data authority that's managed by data experts, I think you're not going to run into those issues of companies taking advantage citizens' data and misusing that sort of data," said Valk, who wrote a piece earlier this year calling data "Alberta's new fuel."

Two rows of black server racks in a room

Data is said to be central to Alberta's economic future, and the policies being developed now will determine whether the province leads or lags behind in the sector. (Manuel Geissinger/Pexels)

Having stringent privacy laws isn't at odds with innovation, Valk said, pointing to Germany and South Korea as jurisdictions that have successfully developed both in tandem. Having clear rules around data prevents misuse by bad actors, Valk said, and it prevents the inter-jurisdictional legal headaches.

"Companies do need to operate with clear rules and compliance, or there's going to be massive costs for them to work with lawyers and other experts to try to understand the government's rules," she said.

"When we've been talking to government here, we've been saying, make things as simple and clear and harmonious with other provinces as possible, or it's going to come to a great cost for our local innovators."

Joseph also sees a potential cost to society as a whole. The inability to share data because of provincial health information acts slowed the national response to COVID-19, he said.

"Forget about companies and commercialization or anything like that, we couldn't even really have a strong response (to COVID-19). We didn't have all the information we needed, in terms of being able to drive a national response to COVID, because our own provincial acts prevent us from sharing data across the nation."