In Defence of the Government Tracking Social Media Activity

For most of the past decade, many people concerned with digital rights have used the Internet and social media to raise awareness in the hope that the government might pay closer attention to their views. The Canadian experience has provided more than its fair share of success stories from copyright reform to usage based billing to the Vic Toews lawful access bill. Yet in recent weeks, there has been mounting criticism about the government’s tracking of social media. This post provides a partial defence of the government, arguing that it should be tracking social media activity provided it does so for policy-making purposes.

The controversy started with news that the Privacy Commissioner of Canada has written to the government to express concern that an increasing number of government institutions are collecting publicly available personal information from social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. The initial report generated considerable media attention with claims that the activity may violate the Privacy Act (or at least the spirit of the legislation).

Last week, Treasury Board President Tony Clement told Jesse Brown that the collection was largely in aggregate form to track public sentiment and that a full review of current practices would be undertaken. However, a later report demonstrated that government officials tracking Bill C-30 (the earlier lawful access bill) did identify specific Twitter users and their tweets (many internal documents I’ve obtained under Access to Information suggest that the Public Safety officials have been exceptionally defensive about lawful access and often seem to drift away from a balanced position).

As noted above, I think government tracking of social media activity – particularly where it is public and aimed at a policy issue – is a good thing.  That support comes with a few caveats. First, social media activity – such as posts, likes, and tweets – are obviously personal information. The fact that they are publicly posted does not alter their status as personal information. The suggestion that the information is fair game for any use since it publicly available is simply wrong. Note that the issue involves postings that are public, not private.

Second, the Privacy Act does indeed establish some limitations on the collection of personal information. Section 4 provides:

No personal information shall be collected by a government institution unless it relates directly to an operating program or activity of the institution.

If the collection of social media information falls outside of this provision, it is offside the law.

Third, there are clearly dangers of misuse, as the Cindy Blackstock case demonstrated. Using social media to target a specific individual raises serious concerns.

With those caveats, I find myself supportive of the government tracking social media activity, if for the purposes of staying current with public opinion on policy, government bills or other political issues. Facebook and Twitter are excellent sources of discussion on policy issues and government policy makers should be tracking what is said much like they monitor mainstream media reports. Too often government creates its own consultation forum that attracts little attention, while the public actively discusses the issue on social media sites. It seems to me that the public benefits when the government pays attention to this discussion. Users that tweet “at” a minister or use a searchable hashtag are surely hoping that someone pays attention to their comment. To see that government officials are tracking these tweets is a good thing, representing a win for individuals that speak out on public policy.

There certainly needs to be policies that ensure that the information is used appropriately and in compliance with the law, but if the current controversy leads to warnings against any tracking of social media, I fear that would represent a huge loss for many groups that have fought to have the government to pay more attention to their concerns.


  1. James Bonham says:

    Shows Trust Issue with Gov’t
    I would tend to agree with you – however the strong reaction is an indication that the current government (and one before that, who knows) is not trusted by Canadians.

    The Vic Towes thing didn’t help. Neither do the revelations about #CSEC and lies about it from our leadership. And now the Anti-Bullying bill BS.

    Somewhere along the line you see editorials warning that Canada is heading in the wrong direction
    ( ) and your reaction is, Holy Crap!

    I hope we misunderstand our leaders, and they are not like the Americans.

  2. George Zinn says:

    facebook likes not reliable
    I think the risk of relying to any degree on facebook likes is a mistake. I for one will ‘like’ something as a way to get regular updates on an organization. And to make it harder for data brokers to sell reliable data about my interests. I know I’m not alone. Just like in twitter, where many will state that an RT is not necessarily an endorsement.

  3. It’s not about reliability
    Nothing is reliable. The point is to monitor what is going on in order to be aware and respond appropriately. I read news sites from different countries and none of them are “reliable”. Many of us read social media, such as the comments in places like this blog, and they are helpful in finding out what different people think. In all cases one has to apply one’s own filter and critical thinking.

    The way I see it, the government tracking that Mr. Geist is talking about as being good is nothing more than listening to the people. That is good, but since the current government is not well meaning toward its citizens, their “listening” would likely not be for purposes which would be to our advantage.

  4. Ever the Optimist
    I will not fault you Professor, since you see the good in humanity. In individuals, yes, I agree. But as a collective, wheather government, corporate or special interest group, deals with the Devil loom. You unfortunately are naiive in this manner 🙁
    But please don’t lose that or change (as if my comments matter anyway), as the hero of any story has a child-like innocence… just like the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. or the Colonel on Stargate.

  5. oh boy..
    We need to limit the power of government to monitor Canadians, not expand it.

    Though an independent consortium with specific guidelines would be excellent for gauging public opinion, such as:

    – informed consent when data is collected
    – concession of information deletion upon request
    – collection of data germane only for the purposes of public opinion on SPECIFIC policy points
    – identity encryption
    – routine deletion of information from data banks

    Though this is a lot to ask, since corps like Facebook and Google already troll all this data and mine it using the most advanced algorithms and AI known to man; even using quantum computing architectures built here in Canada (D-Wave)..

  6. Ole Juul says:

    Monitor is exactly the same as listening. They can do that by reading the papers, but that only works with an independent press. What’s even better is if they keep an eye on what the people themselves are saying. Tweets, blogs, web sites, and other publications of the new “citizen journalist” is exactly where they should look to see what people are thinking.

    It sounds like you are suggesting that the government shouldn’t be listening to the people. Personally, I think they should. But with the caveat, that the present government shouldn’t be doing anything at all because they’re against us.