The government is mining your social media data, but with good reason

The Public Health Agency of Canada wants to use artificial intelligence to help decode hints of suicide-related behaviours on social media.

The federal government wants a pilot project for surveillance of suicide-related behaviours on social media

'Facebook invented this kind of stuff and they sought to use it for commercial purposes first. So the public use by governments and by agencies for good purposes or helpful purposes is relatively new.' (Shutterstock)

When people share their thoughts on social media, there are sometimes hints that the person is unwell or at risk of harming themselves. Now, the Public Health Agency of Canada wants to use artificial intelligence to help decode those hints.

A tender notice posted last week on the federal government's procurement website revealed the artificial intelligence pilot project for surveillance of suicide-related behaviours using social media.

While the agency says it wouldn't be designed to predict suicide for an individual, it could be useful to identify overall trends.

Specifically, according to the statement of work, "To provide PHAC with information on trends, as well as risk and protective factors associated with suicide-related behaviours among various population groups."

There's much at stake, as the agency says suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Canadians aged 10 to 19.

Social media monitoring is also helping police

Earlier this year, police in Saskatoon used a photo they found on Facebook to help solve a murder case.

Cheyenne Antoine pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the death of 18-year-old Brittney Gargol. The murder weapon was believed to be a belt used to strangle Gargol—the same belt Antoine was wearing in the Facebook photo the night of the crime.

Things don't always work out quite that well for police though, which is why there's now a program called Bolo, which stands for "Be On The Lookout:"

"New technology and communication channels are revolutionizing everything from politics to shopping," reads the Bolo Program's website. "The Bolo Program's core goal is to use those technologies and channels to support our police officers in communicating about Canada's most wanted and to help people like you submit tips so that the police can arrest them."

That means sending out most wanted notices on social media to try and leverage vast networks that may help a member of the public find a possible criminal. So police utilize the program, rather than run it themselves.

The Canada Revenue Agency has also realized the power of social media and is using it to look for clues in posts to catch people who might be hiding income.

'We need to be wary'

Richard Smith is the director of the master of the digital media program at the Centre for Digital Media in Vancouver. He says this technology could be a useful additional tool that could provide insights not otherwise available.

"I think it's probably a good idea to use this kind of public data in its aggregate to inform public policy, but I would be a bit concerned about specific responses to specific people's postings," said Smith.

(Shutterstock)

He's pleased government agencies are finally figuring out that social media can be a useful tool used for good because the tone around mining data is typically mostly negative.

"Government is late to the game, where big corporations like Facebook have been in it from the beginning," said Smith. "They invented this kind of stuff and they sought to use it for commercial purposes first. So the public use by governments and by agencies for good purposes or helpful purposes is relatively new."

Richard Smith (Alana Thorburn-Watt)

And because it's relatively new, Smith says it's important we discuss the possible implications.

"We need to be wary when [a] government is collecting data about people, how will that data be used in the future? So when databases are assembled, they need to have clear mandates and maybe expiry dates," said Smith.

For the Public Health Agency of Canada's pilot project around suicide risk factors, the database collection would begin next year. But what that will look like and how they will collect and store that data remains to be seen.

About the Author

Jason Osler

Jason Osler is the national 'trends' columnist for CBC Radio.

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