05/08/2014 12:48 EDT | Updated 07/08/2014 05:59 EDT

Chantal Bernier Says Ottawa Snooping On Social Media

Federal government departments are collecting data on Canadian citizens via their social media accounts for no good reason, Canada's privacy watchdog says.

In a letter to Treasury Board president Tony Clement in February, interim privacy commissioner Chantal Bernier says "we are seeing evidence that personal information is being collected by government institutions from social media sites without regard for accuracy, currency and accountability."

The letter dated Feb. 13th also reads: "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."

The letter is just the latest example of how Canada's chief privacy watchdog has raised a red flag about troubling gaps in the security of Canadians' personal information.

Last month, Bernier's office revealed that various government agencies have made almost 1.2 million requests for personal information about Canadians from Canada's major telecom companies, often without a warrant.

Last year, the commissioner's office criticized two federal government departments for improperly collecting data of a personal nature on prominent First Nations activist Cindy Blackstock. Although it said collection of data about Blackstock's employer and human rights campaign were fair game, the data collection veered into information of a personal nature — an obvious violation of "the spirit, if not the letter, of the Privacy Act," the privacy commissioner said at the time.

Her office also flagged government snooping on social media in a report to parliamentarians in January, which, much like the letter she sent in February, draws a distinction between the legitimate collection of publicly available data, and overreaches into information that the government has no good reason to be collecting or trying to collect.

The Privacy Act does allow for government to collect data from social media, but only when there's a direct relation to a specific program or activity — it's not just a blank cheque to collect data for no specific purpose.

"Even in cases where authority exists, institutions may not be ensuring the accuracy of such information," the letter says. 

"The public availability of personal information on the internet [does not] render personal information non-personal," the privacy commissioner said in the annual report to Parliament last year.

"For good or ill, research demonstrates that social media users have a certain expectation of privacy," the letter says.

Bernier calls on government to more clearly define what information from social media can be collected, under what circumstances and for what purpose. 

"As there appears to be a lack of clarity around this issue, we would suggest that it would be timely to have the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat develop and issue clear, mandatory guidance to articulate what constitutes 'publically available' personal information, how and when such information can be collected and used [and] what responsibilities must be met to ensure its accuracy and currency," the letter reads.

A request for comment from Clement's office by CBC News was not immediately returned Thursday.

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