OTTAWA - The federal government is restricting how closely it watches Canadians online.
New rules are now in place governing the use of data that's gathered when Canadians visit government websites, the first comprehensive guidelines since Ottawa went online nearly 20 years ago.
But the rules don't cover the data available to the government via social media sites that are set up by individual departments, which operate beyond the bounds of federal policy.
Among other things, the new rules for tracking visits to government websites prohibit the government from profiling an individual's online activity by tracking their computer's Internet protocol address.
Any use of the IP address to measure website traffic must also make sure the address is rendered anonymous.
"Canadians live in a world of data. Many individuals do not realize how much information about them is collected by websites and used as a corporate asset," said the privacy assessment carried out by Treasury Board in advance of the new guidelines.
The new policies came into effect at the end of January, through departments have until 2014 to ensure that the contracts they have with third-party groups to analyze government web traffic also comply with the guidelines.
The government is also looking into ways to do the analysis itself, rather than relying on third-party companies like Google.
Regulating what the private and public sector can do with the amount of data generated online has become a key issue in the field of online privacy.
Data mining is a lucrative business, most often associated with marketing and research firms scouring the web for user information and trends that can be turned into advertising campaigns.
There's a huge difference between what private companies can do with that data and how governments can use it, suggested Martin Abrams, president of the U.S.-based Centre for Information Policy Leadership.
"The private sector doesn't have the power to put people in jail, the private sector doesn't have the ability to cut off people's government benefits," Abrams said.
"The private sector doesn't have the ability to use information to target people who could be unfriendly to governments."
While people can switch private-sector services if they don't like the data they have to give up to access them, they don't have that choice when it comes to government, Abrams said.
Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart has been raising concerns about data mining for the last few years, but mostly with a focus on the private sector.
It wasn't until a government department contacted her office looking for advice that she realized the extent of the government's own efforts in the field.
"I am concerned that very important privacy considerations are not being addressed in a comprehensive and consistent manner across government," Stoddart wrote in a letter to Treasury Board President Tony Clement in 2011.
That letter sparked the policy review. Daphne Guerrero, a spokeswoman for Stoddart, said Tuesday that the commissioner is satisfied with the new rules.
"With the government moving towards online service delivery, it's all the more important that the privacy of Canadians be well protected when they’re using government websites," Guerrero wrote in an email.
But Canadians could be giving up a great deal more personal information than just their IP addresses if they choose to interact with the government via any one of hundreds of departmental social media accounts.
The new rules on analytics, however, don't apply to social media sites.
"The Standard on Privacy and Web Analytics was created to protect the privacy of Canadians when they visit Government of Canada websites," Treasury Board spokesman Pierre-Alain Bujold said in an email.
"Third-party social media services (e.g. Twitter) are hosted by third-party providers and not the government of Canada."
That doesn't mean that the government has carte blanche to mine Canadians' social media profiles for details, necessarily.
Bujold cited the Privacy Act, which states "no personal information shall be collected by a government institution unless it relates directly to an operating program or activity of the institution."
The new rules come as the government is preparing to roll out an overhaul of their presence on the Internet.
In a speech last fall, Clement hinted at the coming changes, which include reducing the number of government websites from 1,500 pages to just six.
"This consolidation will focus on putting the needs of citizens first rather than organizing our websites around the structure of government," Clement said.
The B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association says the new changes might not necessarily benefit Canadians.
The group obtained a set of documents outlining some measures under consideration in the web renewal project, including centralizing all government information through a single portal that would prioritize content by what's most popular.
The documents also suggest the government wants to ensure the changes strike a "balance of user-centric content and government messaging."
They also note that the visibility of ministers might be affected by the changes and indicate it's been watching "political message hit ratios" on websites that have already been redesigned.
Vincent Gogolek, the executive director of the B.C. Freedom of Information Association, said he's worried that the management of public information is being changed without public discussion.
"This is centralized information control," Gogolek said. "At the same time, they are going to be also studying people who come in, so what else are they looking for?"
Gogolek said he was also concerned about what will happen to existing information posted on government sites that the renewal project could deem unnecessary.
He pointed to one government site that was supposed to be a clearing house of information on Aboriginal Peoples, but has since been taken down.
A note on that website indicates it was set up at a time when such information was hard to find, but now it's readily available.
A spokeswoman for Clement's office said the government won't be deleting content.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version incorrectly spelled Daphne Guerrero's last name.
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