Canada’s chief statistician has defended attempts by Statistics Canada to obtain sensitive banking details of more than 500,000 Canadians without their consent.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner has launched an investigation into the move by Statistics Canada, a few hours after the agency invited the commissioner to take a “deeper dive” into its program.

StatCan wants to access to a large sample of Canadian bank customer information as part of a new way to track financial data.

Statistics Canada’s chief statistician, Anil Arora, told CTV’s Power Play Wednesday that the agency wants to provide Canadians, businesses and decision makers with the best information.

“The fact is 75 percent, if not more, of all Canadians now transact online,” he said.

“This is where Canadians live and transact today. So for an agency like Statistics Canada we can’t be stuck with just paper and pencil, we have to go to where the needs are. This is the only way that we can provide good timely information and to fill some of the important gaps in our economic understanding.”

Data sought by Statistics Canada includes account balances, debit and credit transactions, mortgage payments and e-transfers. The agency has already obtained personal financial information from the TransUnion credit bureau.

Arora said the agency has seen a significant reduction in response rates for information through traditional means such as phone calls, so it is getting difficult to tell Canadians what is going on in the digital economy.

“Canadians need to be assured that the privacy and confidentiality of the information they give us is exactly the same as we’ve done for 100 years,” he said.

Arora said StatCan has been working with the Privacy Commissioner’s office and the Canadian Banking Association for the past year and taken their recommendations into account.

He said the project was still in the “developing phase” and it has not collected a single record yet.

The issue was raised in Parliament on Tuesday, with deputy Conservative leader Lisa Raitt asking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau if he would order Statistics Canada to “cease and desist” its attempt to obtain the data.

“This prime minister is telling Canadians that it’s OK for their government to understand all of their financial information,” Raitt said.

Trudeau responded by accusing the Conservatives of running “a war on science and facts” at every turn.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer told Power Play on Wednesday that the move by StatCan was a “massive overreach from the government’s power to peer into our personal information”.

“The banks themselves were raising these complaints on behalf of their customers, most Canadians were completely unaware of what’s going on for some time,” the Opposition leader said.

“We don’t believe the government should have the right to take this kind of information without your consent. If this was an individual or another company or a foreign government we would be calling this a hack, an outright violation.”

Scheer added that the Liberal government agreed to pay $17.5 million last year to settle a class-action lawsuit for a data breach relating to student loans.

Arora assured Canadians that the agency has world-leading checks and balances in place to deal with the most sensitive personal information.

“Because we knew about the sensitivity of this we invited the office of the Privacy Commissioner and said, ‘Look, above and beyond this, what else should we do?’ We’ve got those recommendations in place,” he said.

Canada’s big five banks are telling customers that they have not agreed to divulge any of the information Statistics Canada is requesting.

With a report from CTV News parliamentary correspondent Kevin Gallagher