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Canadian Government Spied on Aboriginal Activist's Social Media Accounts

BY Jessica McKenzie | Wednesday, May 29 2013

Screenshot (video below) of Bernard Valcourt, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, defending Canadians' privacy

The Privacy Commissioner of Canada found two government departments violated the Privacy Act when they accessed aboriginal advocate Cindy Blackstock's social media accounts. According to the Toronto Star, officials began monitoring her Facebook page in February of 2010 to ensure Blackstock was not releasing sensitive information about her human rights lawsuit against the federal government, but they gathered private, personal information entirely unrelated to the case.

Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations and Family Caring Society and a prominent aboriginal children's advocate, filed a complaint against Ottawa in 2007 with the Canadian Human Rights Commission citing discrimination and neglect in aboriginal child welfare services. The case alleges the federal government is discriminating against native communities by giving 22 percent less to child welfare services than provincial (state) governments. The case was first dismissed by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in 2011, but a Federal Court ruled in April 2012 that the Tribunal hold a new hearing and review the evidence.

The Canadian government has spent $3.1 million (CAD) trying to keep Blackstock's case out of the courts. After admitting to monitoring her Facebook page from February 2010, the government explained that “it [her Facebook page] should be monitored to ensure that sensitive information is not being released to the public.”

When looking into Blackstock's privacy complaint, Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart found the departments of Justice and Aboriginal Affairs accessed personal information about Blackstock and her Facebook friends. "The lack of transparency surrounding the collection of personal information by the respondents from the complainant's Facebook page would seem to violate the spirit, if not the letter of the act," Stoddart wrote. TechPresident contacted her office and found that because this was a private complaint there is no press release, just what the complainant has already shared with the media.

Blackstock says the information in the government screenshots “included her Mother's Day greetings, her travel plans, an exchange about her cookie-baking skills, chats with friends from as far away as Australia and a posting from a 12-year-old.” That seems to clearly breach the Privacy Act, which states in Section 4: “No personal information shall be collected by a government institution unless it relates directly to an operating program or activity of the institution.”

Questioned in parliament about the government overstepping legal boundaries, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Bernard Valcourt responded, "The fact of the matter is that we take very seriously Canadians' right to privacy and all of the recommendations if, if, most of the recommendations, if not all, Mr. Speaker, were already being implemented and we shall fully implement the recommendations of the Commissioner." His stuttered response elicited barely stifled giggles from those assembled.

Cindy Blackstock says this response is not enough. “I'd like to see a personal apology from both the Ministers of Justice and Aboriginal Affairs and a public commitment that this is not happening to me anymore and also importantly not to other Canadians.”

Privacy Commissioner Stoddart has recently called for tougher privacy laws targeting international companies, but they'll be hard to enact or enforce since her own government seems content to ignore them.

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