Is the government checking you out on Facebook?
Andrea Janus, CTVNews.ca
Published Thursday, May 8, 2014 10:55AM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, May 8, 2014 10:02PM EDT
It may not just be your ex who is creeping your Facebook page. Canada’s privacy commissioner says government agencies are collecting “personal information from social networking sites” that does not directly relate to government business.
Interim Privacy Commissioner Chantal Bernier outlined her concerns to Treasury Board Secretary Tony Clement in a letter obtained by CTV News that is dated Feb. 13. According to Bernier, not only collecting the information, but they are not taking steps to ensure its accuracy.
“We are seeing evidence that personal information is being collected by government institutions from social media sites without regard for accuracy, currency or accountability,” Bernier writes, noting that social media users have “a certain expectation of privacy.”
“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; it is not at all clear that this obligation is being, or could be, met.”
In a statement emailed Thursday evening to CTV News, Bernier said 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.”
Bernier has also asked that some government departments that have proposed collecting personal information from social media sites “to justify the need for such information.”
About two weeks before she sent her letter to Clement, Bernier released a report to Parliament warning that Canada’s spy agencies need more oversight and better guidelines as new surveillance tools give them access to more information than ever before.
Among her many recommendations in that report, Bernier said specific guidelines should be developed for the collection, analysis and dissemination of intelligence gleaned from online sources, particularly social networking sites.
Bernier wrote that “the public availability of personal information on the Internet does not render personal information non-personal. It is our view that departments should not access personal information on social media sites unless they can demonstrate a direct correlation to legitimate government business.”
In her letter to Clement, Bernier notes that “as there appears to be a lack of clarity around this issue,” the Treasury Board should develop “clear, mandatory guidance to articulate what constitutes ‘publicly available’ personal information,” as well as how and when such information can be collected and used, and how that information is determined to be accurate.
In a statement to CTV, Clement’s office said the "government always wants to listen to Canadians who want to be heard. Of course, we must, and will, operate lawfully in accordance with the Privacy Act. We are always willing to engage with the Privacy Commissioner to ensure our oversight and our laws are modern for the 21st century."
During question period Thursday, NDP Deputy Leader Megan Leslie questioned how the government could gather private information on its citizens while privacy issues are becoming more of a concern.
She criticized the government for cutting funding to Statistics Canada and scrapping the long-form census, but turning to social media for information.
“So will the prime minister admit that his government has failed to protect the privacy of Canadians?” Leslie asked.
Clement called the line of questioning “curious.”
“In a day and age when Canadians willingly put information about their opinions, beliefs (online) and want to engage in government, the NDP want to shut it down,” Clement said.
The minister said data collected merely tracks Canadians’ opinions on various issues. And the information gathered, Clement said, isn’t stored or linked to personal accounts.
However, Clement said his office will review the concerns to ensure the government complies with the privacy act.
With files from CTV’s Mercedes Stephenson