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.
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.