Proof Canada is Snooping on Your Twitter Account

The government logged all those "asshole" tweets directed at Vic Toews.

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May 22 2014, 7:50pm
Image: Pixabay

Despite claims from the Canadian government that it only follows social media to aggregate citizen interest in policy, Motherboard has obtained documents proving it snoops on individuals' Twitter accounts.

The records, mostly from 2012 and obtained under Access to Information laws, show that bureaucrats compiled lists of tweets of many who voiced objections to the civil-liberties infringing bill C-30, and insulted then Public Safety Minister Vic Toews. In response to a Liberal MP who opposed the bill, Toews famously said, “He can either stand with us or with the child pornographers.”

The response on Twitter to Toews “child pornographers” line and scandals surrounding his personal life were fierce. And the bureaucrats were following every step of the way.

Public Safety Department staffers traded dug-up tweets such as: “Don’t Vic Toews me, bro,” “Vic Toews is the guy who would never give your balls back from his year when you were a kid,” and “Vic Toews, thanks for pissing me off before my first cup of coffee (-:|3” 

There’s little context provided for why the government workers were interested in the opinion of users like @Polonoscopy or others who opposed the unpopular minister.

A A screenshot of some of the recorded tweets in the documents.

Those tweets were passed around under the subject line “Contentious Tweets.” It was then forwarded widely in the department under the ominous title “Green Category.” It appears as though staffers produced the list by searching ‘Vic Toews’ and pulling all the negative comments.

“This data is aggregated,” Treasury Board Minister Tony Clement told the Canadaland podcast in an episode released Sunday, referring to social media surveillance. “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.”

But that hopper appears to be overflowing and @PopeShakey, one of the tweeters opposing Toews in 2012, is concerned.

“This is all very distressing, not to mention creepy,” he told me, preferring to stay anonymous and identified by his Twitter handle.

He wound up on the list for tweeting, “It seems Vic 'Child Pornography' Toews can't go a single week without claiming anyone who opposes him supports child porn.”

“I can understand taking a snapshot of public opinion regarding pending legislation, but to compile lists of usernames of people who have negative impressions of specific elected officials feels like a misuse of government resources,” the Halifax-based tweeter said.

Chantal Bernier, the federal privacy commissioner, agrees. “For good or ill, research demonstrates that social media users have a certain expectation of privacy,” she wrote to Clement in February. She suggests Ottawa draft guidelines around just how it collects social media communications.

Dan Delmar—a managing partner at Provocateur Communications—is less worried. He’s quoted in the emails, under his handle of @Delmarhasissues, referring to Toews as an “ass.” 

“One of my less constructive tweets,” Delmar said.

“If the Ministry wasn't collecting criticism and reaction to their policies on social media, I'd say they weren't doing their job properly,” Delmar told me. If the data-collection is used for partisan ends, he says, it would be something else entirely. There’s no indication that was done. “On the surface, I don’t find this to be problematic at all.”

The records obtained by Motherboard appear to only capture some of the social media monitoring done by the department. But beyond just spending an ungodly amount of time monitoring the social media accounts of those less-than-friendly to the federal government the bureaucrats also stalked the accounts of numerous Anonymous-related accounts and websites.

They were especially interested in a series of videos that revealed very personal information about Toews’ love life. Communications managers requested transcripts of the videos then passed them around. 

They also created a “ticket” (meaning the issue was flagged) for a missive sent from Anonymous, announcing that the group would be Twitter bombing the Harper Government. It’s not clear why the Public Safety Ministry cared about @PMHarper getting inundated with tweets.

The government staffers found many Anonymous decrees on Pastebin, a site that allows users to dump large amounts of text without revealing their identity. In one of the more hilarious examples of the department’s online snooping, a bureaucrat forwarded a Pastebin post featuring the entire text of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, ostensibly added by Anonymous. There was no other text added.

Traditional media monitoring is common in departments, but surveilling the online social lives of citizens is increasingly confounding.

Bureaucrats, for example, bumped around a copy of a head-scratching open letter posted by Sun columnist Warren Kinsella on his blog. In it, he calls on Anonymous to get involved by attacking the Nova Scotia NDP or the RCMP.

Just the same, Public Safety passed it around internally, and then sent it to the RCMP. In one particularly telling exchange from the bureaucrats, one staffer emails the other to ask if they’ve “been following the news about Anonymous’ rampage,” and wonders “what can be done to stop such embarrassing attacks?” They note it was the lead story on CBC’s The National.

“You watch traditional news??? :p” replied the second bureaucrat.

While some departments have been known to contract out social media monitoring reports, featuring aggregate data like Clement refers to, that appears to have some bearing on policy-making—like Aboriginal Affairs did during the Idle No More protests—these Public Safety documents appear to be more about keeping tabs on naysayers than engaging with the Canadian public.