After reportedly already spending $20 million on media monitoring services, the Conservative-led Stephen Harper government is also looking to fill another tender for a “Social Media Monitoring” system to “meet the needs of Federal Government Departments and Agencies.”
It appears that the procurement request, released in January, has yet to be filled, while companies like IBM, IG Global Intelligence, and SecDev Cyber, among many others, have all made bids on the tender. A similar tender from 2013 was already awarded.
The call for a social media monitoring system comes amidst public statements by the federal government earlier this year claiming it wasn’t interested in the individual social media accounts of Canadians, instead in “aggregated” data that it argues would be useful without presenting privacy concerns.
In an interview with the Canadaland podcast in April with journalist Jesse Brown, federal Minister Tony Clement said social media data is aggregated as a tool for the government to see how policy is received.
AN INCREASING NUMBER OF GOVERNMENT AGENCIES ARE COLLECTING PUBLICLY AVAILABLE PERSONAL INFORMATION FROM SOCIAL NETWORKING SITES
“It’s not personal to an individual. If there are opinions expressed about a government initiative, policy or program, that’s the sort of data aggregated. It’s put into the hopper,” he said at the time.
But even if bureaucrats say aggregate data obscures individuals' identities enough to present no privacy concern, courts may not agree. Clement rejected claims by the then Canadian Privacy Commissioner Chantal Bernier, who was concerned by what she called an “an increasing number of government institutions” that were “collecting publicly available personal information from social networking sites.”
To Bernier, the practise was potentially illegal. Under Canadian law, all citizens retain a "privacy interest" in their own data. That also includes publicly accessible data that lives online, in much the same way a license plate can be seen in public: citizens expect their plates won’t be tracked or surveilled without a warrant.
Moreover, the Privacy Act holds that any data collection of public information is off limits, “unless it relates directly to an operating program or activity of the institution.” According to Bernier, much of that social media surveillance was “without any direct relation to a program or activity” of a government department, thus violating the Act.
But the feds seems to be casting a wider net on the online data of Canadians, at least according to the terms of the latest tender. Per the release, the social media monitoring system is calling for a “real-time monitoring and analysis of social media content including Twitter, Facebook, blogs, chatrooms, message boards, social networks and video and image sharing websites; and Real-time monitoring of Internet news sites.”
PM Steven Harper during pre-budget discussions in 2013. Image: Prime Minister's office
The tender also states the private firm eventually required to surveill social media for the Canadian government will need to provide intelligence on an “as and when requested” basis.
That could mean everything from emergency analysis of key news events, or an ongoing membership into an intelligence report that civil servants could gather at any moment. We do know several federal government departments have contracts with private intelligence firm Stratfor for access to risk assessments of key regions. A similar arrangement could be in place for a social media monitoring site, with another private intelligence firm.
The Canadian federal government doesn’t distinguish which departments would be profiting from the social media monitoring system. In fact, within the tender’s “Region of delivery” section it cites all provinces and territories; meaning federal agencies and departments across the country would likely receive the service.
“Media Monitoring is a critical function in the support of a department’s effort to identify and track current and emerging public issues and trends as reported in the media,” reads the tender. “An integral part of media monitoring is performed through the monitoring of Internet news sources and Social media.”
For its part, American government agencies and law enforcement entities have been actively engaged in tracking the online social media happenings of its citizens. In the wake of a machete attack on a police officer, the NYPD plans to increase surveillance of social media in an effort to pre-identify lone wolf terrorist attacks before they happen.
Meanwhile, everyone from the Federal Reserve to the NSA has been gobbling up social media data on Americans. As for Canada, the practise has only begun in earnest in the last year. Harper is known to depend on media monitoring services to master his political spin, giving him a finger on the pulse of public interests.
The government can't collect information just because it wants to
But government social media monitoring could very easily cross over into a legal gray area. Christopher Parsons, a cybersurveillance researcher at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, said the collection of personal data from online sources needs to be rigorously justified, and even when it is, the data needs to be handled and stored safely.
“The government can't just collect information about Canadians—even from public sourced data repositories such as social media—just because it wants to,” said Parsons in an email to me. “There have to be terms set on the collection, handling, disclosure, and disposal of personal information that the government wants to gather. As a result, even when data is collected for legitimate reasons that doesn't mean the data can then be used in any way that the government (subsequently) decides.”
Strict oversights into how the government gleans and uses this intelligence—even in the service of testing policy reactions, as Parsons thinks this service will likely do—is required.
According to Parsons, that comes in the form of internal “privacy impact assessments” related to the specific social media surveillance program.
“Government agencies are supposed to conduct such assessments before collecting Canadians' personal information and explain the specifics of how and why they will collect Canadians' personal data,” said Parsons.
So far, we’ve reached out to Public Works and Government Services Canada (the procurement department) about the nature of this social media monitoring system, but they’ve yet to respond adequately.
In the medium term, it appears Canadians can count on more of their tweets to be sucked up into a government social media surveillance system—then potentially shared across government departments.
Parsons told me that the sharing of the personal data of Canadian, in general, is only becoming more pervasive across government agencies.
“There has been a marked increase in the sharing of personal data between and across different departments because information is initially being collected for vague or far-sweeping reasons. Were social media information collected for similarly vague reasons then the government could then try to expansively share collected information across government,” he said.
In other words, at present, social media monitoring within the Canadian government is a veritable Wild West.