How public is publicly-available information? How much publicly-available information should governments collect?

These are questions raised by a Toronto Star article today that businesses should also think about in their social media strategies.

The issue was raised when the news service got hold of a letter from interim privacy commissioner Chantal Bernier to Treasury Board President Tony Clement.

“We are seeing evidence that personal information is being collected by government institutions from social media sites without regard for accuracy, currency and accountability,” Bernier wrote in the February letter.

“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.”

Bernier’s problem is that personal information can only be gathered for a specific program or activity under the Privacy Act.  The legislation also requires Ottawa to ensure the accuracy of information it collects.

NOTE: After this article was published Bernier’s office told by email the issue related to the gathering of information by an unnamed from a First Nations activist’s personal Facebook page. The commissioner believes this should only be done when  there is “a direct connection” to a department’s operating programs or activities.

Why personal information is being plucked about an activist isn’t explained. But I recall in 2010 the personal medical information of an activist and former military person was collected from government files and put into briefing notes for the then minister of Veteran’s Affairs. At the time the commissioner ruled it was a clear violation of the Privacy Act, which states that personal information in the hands of government can’t be used by a department for purposes other than which it was obtained without consent.

The difference in this case is Facebook information can be public.

In an interview with the Star, Clement didn’t seem to be worried. People chose to put information on the Internet, he said. He also said the government staff takes into account what’s on a Web site might not be accurate.

Treasury Board didn’t immediately explain what the government is doing with the information.

Ottawa has many arms, some benign – say, the Fisheries department – and others with criminal law and national security responsibilities.

In the absence of more information, we can only speculate on what Bernier is worried about. The RCMP, CSIS and Canada Revenue might have legitimate reasons for looking at what individuals say on a public social media site – the first two might be looking for certain keywords (“bomb,” “explosive,” or phrases “this will make them pay attention,” “just came back from a trip to Sudan”), as well as the third (“made a killing selling this stock”).

Such agencies get information from various sources and before launching prosecutions ought to verify facts used if a prosecution goes forward.  When they don’t, things go bad.

The private sector, which keeps an eye on tweets and posts about products and services, should note that, too.