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.


  1. I want them to read our social media. How else will they be able to come to the reality that the knowledge of the social media is all encompassing and ” is ” the needs of the people. .

  2. The internet is an unregulated, un-policed environment. False innuendos are easily placed in this unregulated environment. Nothing written on it should be taken verbatim with the exception of qualified documents from professional sources. Government agencies cannot verify that what is written in a casual environment is indicative of the true nature of any person. Inferences that are taken from the online milieu cannot be considered accurate depictions of any person’s character or intentions. J. Edgar Hoover proved over and over again that we can easily make a case against someone based on false innuendo. It would be dangerous and very Hooverian to consider online posts as fact and then use those supposed facts in a court of law.

    • unless it is audible anything else, like the written word or typed word or the ghost written , is edited and therefore of lesser or questionable worthiness.

  3. Mother doesn’t go out anymore
    Just sits at home and rolls her spastic eyes
    But every weekend through the door
    Come words of wisdom from the world outside

    If you want to know ’bout the bishop and the actress
    If you want to know how to be a star
    If you want to know ’bout the stains on the mattress
    You can read it in the Sunday papers
    Sunday papers

    Mother’s wheelchair stays out in the hall
    Why should she go out when the TV’s on?
    Whatever moves beyond these walls
    She’ll know the facts when Sunday comes along
    If you want to know ’bout the mad punk rockers*
    If you want to know how to play guitar
    If you want to know ’bout any other suckers
    You can read it in the Sunday papers
    Read it in the Sunday papers

    Sunday papers, don’t ask no questions
    Sunday papers, don’t get no lies
    Sunday papers, don’t raise objections
    Sunday papers, ain’t got no eyes

    Brother’s headin’ that way now, I guess
    He just read somethin’, made his face turn blue
    Well I got nothin’ ‘gainst the press
    They wouldn’t print it if it wasn’t true
    If you want to know ’bout the gay politician (oh yeah!)
    If you want to know how to drive your car
    If you want to know ’bout the new sex position

    You can read it in the Sunday papers
    Read it in the Sunday papers
    Sunday papers, don’t ask no questions
    Sunday papers, don’t get no lies
    Sunday papers, don’t raise objections
    Sunday papers, ain’t got no eyes
    Sunday papers, don’t ask no questions
    Sunday papers, don’t get no lies
    Sunday papers, don’t raise objections
    Sunday papers, ain’t got no eyes
    Read all about it, Sunday papers

    Get your Sunday paper, get your Sunday paper, get your

    • I dont know whether he is the greatest, but I do know that that he and the government, that he is a part of, is the first majority government to come to represent Canada in more than 70 years that is not a product from the province of Quebec…. That by itself is encouraging… just an observation. language and religion until now, have come together to rule the roost. Harper is no dummy.

      • Read the article, the government are reading this, so I have to write what Harper wants, which is the opposite of the truth. Did I go to far? Please don’t send me to the Tar mines!!!! Heil Harper!! Down with Trudeau!!

  4. I want government to read my posts, because I want to tell the government that the Ontario Securities Commission has made big mistake in alleging Sino-Forest of fraud, which caused shareholders (including me) losing billions of dollars.

    For the past two years, shareholders of Sino-Forest have sent hundreds of letters and emails to every government department and officials to show the evidences and ask the OSC to review the case, however, so far all we have received are auto-reply emails.

    Now there are already enough evidences showing that Sino-Forest’s forest assets are real and the company is not a fraud, but the OSC still refuses to talk with us about the allegation which destroyed the company:

  5. Uh, this is news? Back when I immigrated to Canada from Australia in 200x (exact year withheld) I had a huge legal fight with CIC to get here that lasted years. Their “evidence” for most of their suspicions from me? They’d Googled my internet nickname and literally printed out everything Google gave them and put it in my official Immigration file as if I’d said it.

    I know this since I’m fortunate to have a copy of my file (all 2,500 pages of it) so I can see with my own eyes the swathes of “data” attributed to me, ranging from sports forums to the quite innocuous Yahoo site comments of a 14 year old girl from Calgary who happened to be amongst those with the same username… wtf?!

    • Oh, and in case you were wondering… they DO still keep it in active use. Every time I come back to Canada from overseas it’s a 2-hour wait in Immigration secondary while they read all of it and then let me through.

  6. Yo, I just came back from a trip to Sudan were I made a killing off selling this stock! It was explosive! Just the bomb, you know? All those people who ignored my financial advice? Well, this will make them pay attention.
    There, that oughta keep some Con schlub busy for the rest of the evening.


  7. If the world falls into a deep economic depression and Canada’s economy gets hammered and people rise up to protest, the government — regardless of who is in power but especially one as anti-democratic as the Harper Conservatives — will implement a War Measures Act-type law, and arrest and imprison folks who dare demand social, political and economic changes, and lock them away without trial until the government is toppled, unless Canada’s military and police forces refuse to become jack booted storm troopers and refuse, as one weakly hopes.


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