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Clement orders look at federal social media harvesting over privacy concerns

OTTAWA - Treasury Board President Tony Clement has asked his officials to look into concerns about the federal collection of personal information from social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

In a letter to interim privacy commissioner Chantal Bernier, Clement says staff have been directed to study the matter, work with the commissioner's office and report back to him.

The minister's March 31 letter to Bernier came in response to her February fears that government institutions were gathering information from social media sites without regard for accuracy, currency and accountability — contrary to the federal Privacy Act.

Bernier urged Clement to devise "clear, mandatory guidance" on the collection and use of such information given that departments could rely on it to make administrative decisions about people.

In a recent investigation into collection of information from an aboriginal activist's personal Facebook page, the privacy commissioner's office took the position that such data can be lawfully gathered only when there's a direct connection to the agency's operating programs or activities.

Bernier's office says it has seen other proposals from government departments to collect personal details from social media sites.

"We are pleased that Treasury Board Secretariat has agreed to look into this issue," her office said in a statement Thursday.

Clement indicated in the House of Commons that federal agencies were monitoring social media to learn what the public thinks about vital issues.

"Whether it's in a letter, or a petition, or written on the street, this government always wants to listen to Canadians who want to be heard."

NDP deputy leader Megan Leslie — citing the privacy commissioner's concerns about the digital harvesting practices — asked what guidelines governed the federal collection of details from social media.

Clement said the government "must and will" follow the Privacy Act. "We are always willing to engage with the privacy commissioner to make sure that ... our laws and the oversight of government is modern for the 21st century," he said.

Clement's written reply to Bernier, made public Thursday, says social media helps the government learn about Canadians' views "in an extremely timely manner."

"I am sensitive to the need to respect privacy concerns while carrying out this important work," his letter says.

"I have asked my officials to study this matter, collaborate with your officials and report back to me in the coming months."

Leslie pointed to newly published research on surveillance in Canada that says personal information is flowing between the public and private sectors in unprecedented ways.

Data gathered for one purpose may easily be used for another when public and private organizations share data, flying in the face of fair information practices, says "Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada."

The book, a collaborative effort by leading Canadian researchers who identify nine key trends, is being launched at a conference this week at the University of Ottawa.

Leslie said that given private monitoring of the public and numerous government data breaches, the Conservatives should be "hanging their heads in shame, not patting themselves on the back."

Follow @JimBronskill on Twitter

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