The federal government has launched a review after a warning from the privacy commissioner that Ottawa’s collection of data from Canadians’ social media accounts may violate the Privacy Act.

The review is internal and has no deadline, however, and the minister responsible is playing down the issues, saying public Twitter and Facebook accounts are fair game.

Government departments are collecting data from Canadians through social media “without any direct relation to a program or activity” and despite users’ “certain expectation of privacy,” interim commissioner Chantal Bernier wrote in a Feb. 13 letter to Treasury Board President Tony Clement.

The revelation signals Ottawa is not only monitoring social media, but actually gathering what it sees. If such information is being used for government policy, it must first be proven accurate, Ms. Bernier said. “It is not at all clear that this obligation is being, or could be, met,” Ms. Bernier wrote. She called for Mr. Clement’s office to issue “policy guidance” to government departments.

Mr. Clement replied in his own letter, dated March 25, saying he’d have his department study the matter over the coming months but saying the government was merely engaging with citizens online.

“Real time review and analysis of publicly available social media content allows government policy to be informed by Canadians’ views in an extremely timely manner,” he wrote. “I am sensitive to the need to respect privacy concerns while carrying out this important work.”

Mr. Clement told reporters Thursday the government would be wrong to stop collecting the information, which he called “aggregate data” as opposed to closely looking at an individual account.

“It’s used to aggregate impressions of government programs – problems, if there are any,” he said. “…I think that’s what Canadians want us to do, to learn from them how government programs affect them in positive or negative ways and to improve government programs.”

Mr. Clement and Ms. Bernier disagree over whether a publicly available social media account is actually considered public information. Mr. Clement said he believes it is.

“I don’t see anything wrong with that. Most Canadians, when you put something on Facebook or Twitter, assume that somebody’s going to read it,” he said.

Ms. Bernier, however, disagreed in her February letter, citing her office’s 2012 report to Parliament. “The public availability of personal information on the Internet… [does not] render personal information non-personal,” it concluded.

The government needs to develop guidelines to make it clear what privacy protections Canadians have on their public social media accounts, Ms. Bernier added in a statement Thursday, citing her department’s earlier investigation into collection of information from a First Nations activist’s Facebook page. “The fact that the two departments in that case thought that they were in compliance with the Privacy Act underscores the need for guidance,” she wrote.

Ms. Bernier applauded Mr. Clement’s review of government policy. A spokeswoman for Mr. Clement, Heather Domereckyj, said there was no deadline for when the review will be finished.

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, May. 08 2014, 9:54 PM EDT
Last updated Thursday, May. 08 2014, 9:57 PM EDT