Chantal Bernier says Ottawa snooping on social media

Federal government departments are collecting data on Canadian citizens via their social media accounts for no good reason, Canada's privacy watchdog says.

Privacy commissioner urges government to clarify rules for when and where data can be collected

Chantal Bernier, Canada's interim privacy commissioner, wants Ottawa to clearly define what information government departments are allowed to collect on Canadians from social media. (Canadian Press)

Federal government departments are collecting data on Canadian citizens via their social media accounts for no good reason, Canada's privacy watchdog says.

In a letter to Treasury Board president Tony Clement in February, interim privacy commissioner Chantal Bernier says "we are seeing evidence that personal information is being collected by government institutions from social media sites without regard for accuracy, currency and accountability."

The letter dated Feb. 13 also reads: "Should information culled from these sites be used to make administrative decisions about individuals, it is incumbent upon government institutions to ensure the accuracy of this information."

Clement replied to her letter, promising to ask Treasury Board officials to study the matter and report back to Bernier. 

Government questioned

The issue came up in the House of Commons on Thursday. NDP MP Megan Leslie asked how the government sees fit to collect and stockpile more private information on citizens in a time when privacy issues are becoming more critical. "The government scrapped the long-form census because it was too intrusive, but they're fine with private companies intruding on the personal lives of millions of Canadians," she told Clement during question period.

Without explaining what, specifically, was being monitored and collected, Clement justified the practice by saying the government is merely finding new ways of communicating with citizens. 

"Whether it's in a letter or a petition or written on the street, this government always wants to listen to Canadians who want to be heard," Clement said. "Of course we must and will operate within the law, within the confines of the Privacy Act, and of course we are always willing to engage with the privacy commissioner to ensure that our oversight and our laws, the oversight of government, is modern."

But "we will continue to communicate with Canadians who want to communicate with us," Clement said.

The letter is just the latest example of how Canada's chief privacy watchdog has raised a red flag about troubling gaps in the security of Canadians' personal information.

Other concerns

Last month, Bernier's office revealed that various government agencies have made almost 1.2 million requests for personal information about Canadians from Canada's major telecom companies, often without a warrant.

Last year, the commissioner's office criticized two federal government departments for improperly collecting data of a personal nature on prominent First Nations activist Cindy Blackstock. Although it said collection of data about Blackstock's employer and human rights campaign were fair game, the data collection veered into information of a personal nature — an obvious violation of "the spirit, if not the letter, of the Privacy Act," the privacy commissioner said at the time.

Bernier sent CBC News her report on Blackstock's case, which states it is a "misconception that people surrender their right to privacy by posting on Facebook." 

In an email statement today she also said the more recent intrusions into Canadians' privacy by two government departments underscore the need for guidance in this area.

"It is increasingly important to develop guidelines to clarify privacy protections with respect to the collection of publicly available personal information from social media sites," she wrote.

"In a recent investigation into the collection of information from a First Nations activist’s personal Facebook page, we took the position that this type of information can only be gathered in situations in which a direct connection exists to the institution’s operating programs or activities," she added.

Bernier's office also flagged government snooping on social media in a report to parliamentarians in January, which, much like the letter she sent in February, draws a distinction between the legitimate collection of publicly available data, and that which overreaches into information that the government has no good reason to be collecting or trying to collect.

The Privacy Act does allow for government to collect data from social media, but only when there's a direct relation to a specific program or activity — it's not just a blank cheque to collect data for no specific purpose.

"Even in cases where authority exists, institutions may not be ensuring the accuracy of such information," the letter says. 

Privacy lawyer David Fraser agrees, saying he hopes decisions on government programs such as Employment Insurance aren't being made with inaccurate data. "It's not just that they're looking, they're collecting," he told CBC News in an interview. "Transparency is the way to deal with this head-on."

"People using social media [voluntarily] put their information out there … but if it's being collected on a database that really takes it completely out of that realm," he said. "We have doors and curtains in our lives for a reason."

For him, the issue isn't that public information is being stored, but rather why. "Is there a list of people who've shown negative opinions [of the government]? We're left with a lot of questions and no real answers," Fraser said. 

Clarity needed

"The public availability of personal information on the internet [does not] render personal information non-personal," the privacy commissioner said in the annual report to Parliament last year. "For good or ill, research demonstrates that social media users have a certain expectation of privacy," the letter says.

Bernier calls on government to more clearly define what information from social media can be collected, under what circumstances and for what purpose. 

"As there appears to be a lack of clarity around this issue, we would suggest that it would be timely to have the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat develop and issue clear, mandatory guidance to articulate what constitutes 'publically available' personal information, how and when such information can be collected and used [and] what responsibilities must be met to ensure its accuracy and currency," the letter reads.