The Canadian Space Agency says the use of the photo was a mistake that the government is taking steps to correct.
The Economist flagged the doctored photo in an online opinion piece posted Friday titled "Canada's astronomical boasting."
The image is of NASA astronaut Stephen Robinson during a 2005 spacewalk. The version posted on federal government websites feature the logo on a part of the arm where such a logo doesn't exist on a similar NASA photo. The two versions of the photo are slightly different in other ways, suggesting they were two photos taken at slightly different times.
The article was written by Kenneth Cukier, the data editor at the Economist, who told CBC News he wrote the article after stumbling upon the photo by accident. Seeing it, he was fairly convinced that the logo was not pasted onto the arm between the taking of the two photos and that there was some digital manipulation involved. His article noted that a Canada logo is on the Canadarm2, but on a part that is not visible in the photo.
"The tactic of fairly ham-fisted airbrushing used here seems more reminiscent of North Korean propaganda posters than of Western democracies' typical PR efforts," the article said.
"Perhaps the idea of slapping a fresh logo onto the foreground seemed a harmless move. But history is history. Falsifying it does a disservice to everyone."
Cukier told CBC that "as a person who cares a lot about data/information (book author, etc), the idea of the integrity of information, like a photo, matters a lot to me."
While the photo appears on federal government websites, including a page on its Economic Action Plan, and Citizen and Immigration Canada's "Discover Canada" page, the Economist notes that its availability on the internet has caused it to appear on sites as far away from Austria, South Korea and India.
The Economist credits the photo to NASA and Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen.
Hansen, who has never flown in space, is credited on the version of the photo in a Feb. 14, 2014 post in French on the Canadian Space Agency's Tumblr blog. He is also quoted as saying in French, "Canadarm2 is superb on the $5 bill, but it is even more amazing when seen from the International Space Station. The Earth doesn't look bad either." The blog post seems to suggest that Hansen is the astronaut in the photo.
Photo 'wasn't supposed to be used in any public way'
When asked about the photo, the Canadian Space Agency said it was an image developed for a poster at an internal event in 2006 to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Canadarm2.
"It wasn't supposed to be used in any public way," said Maya Eyssen, a spokeswoman for the agency.
She said the Canadian Space Agency is now taking steps to get the photo removed from the Economic Action Plan and Citizen and Immigration Canada websites and replaced with the original version on the Canadian Space Agency website. Eyssen said she was unsure how the photo ended up on the Tumblr blog post.