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Rights + Justice
Science + Tech

RCMP’s Social Media Surveillance Symptom of Broad Threat to Privacy, Says BCCLA

Micheal Vonn isn’t surprised by RCMP’s ‘Project Wide Awake’ — but she’s worried.

By Bryan Carney 26 Mar 2019 |

Bryan Carney is director of web production at The Tyee and reports on technology and privacy issues. You can follow his very occasional tweets at @bpcarney.

It’s not surprising the RCMP is using sophisticated software to monitor the social media activities of Canadians, said Micheal Vonn, policy director of the BC Civil Liberties Association.

But it is worrying, she said.

On Monday The Tyee revealed the existence of the RCMP’s “Project Wide Awake,” which monitors the social media activities of Canadians on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other platforms.

The program’s expansion last year with sophisticated monitoring software appears to undermine the RCMP’s 2017 claim to the federal Privacy Commissioner that the project’s surveillance was “reactive” — done to gather information after a crime was committed.

The operation is now monitoring people’s online activities to see if they might commit a crime.

“I’m not surprised, but only because I spend a lot of time in this world,” said Vonn. “For most people, to hear that the police may be collecting their social media offerings for analysis, for future crime, is pretty shocking.”

But we’ve been heading in this direction for decades, Vonn said. Intelligence-based policing — the notion that if we have more information on citizens, we’ll have more effective policing — is in many ways uncontroversial, she noted.

A segment of the population wants police to gather more information about others. “Oh good, watch those guys, we don’t like them,” said Vonn.

But when people realize how much it could impact their own lives, they quickly become concerned, she said.

Vonn said citizens are affected when police monitor ordinary, lawful dissent and then create risk profiles for various crimes. The results might be invisible, until we face increased scrutiny at borders or are denied the right to board flights.

People won’t know why police decided they were a crime risk, she noted.

The RCMP has refused to release its policies on social media monitoring, how the information is stored, whom it is shared with or how it is used.

Vonn said that’s not acceptable.

People should have a right to access policies about the state’s use of their data, she said. And privacy oversight should not depend on citizens making complaints — especially when they might not even know of programs like the RCMP’s Project Wide Awake.

Vonn said the RCMP and other agencies should not be gathering information on people without oversight and rules to limit use of the surveillance and use of the information.

At all of the key stages of monitoring for crime investigation — collection, use, disclosure and destruction of the information — agencies should be governed by the tightest limitations possible, she said, while still allowing them to be effective.

“There is an entry level question, a threshold question about ‘do you really have the authority to collect this? Are we so confident that you have that kind of collection authority?’”

It’s tempting, said Vonn, to keep every piece of information on people in case there is a future use for it.

But the rule must be if there is no use for it, destroy it, she said.

Vonn said the RCMP shouldn’t be able to keep its policy on Project Wide Awake secret because it might contain procedural information.

“You can’t just shield yourself from public accountability by saying that there is some operational component to the information that is being sought.”

There are established rules around this kind of disclosure, Vonn said. The RCMP — or any public agency — can sever some portions of the policy if it has a justifiable reason for keeping it from the public. Otherwise, it should be public.

“The notion that because there might be something that needs to be severed, the public doesn’t get the policy is incorrect,” she said.

The current privacy protection model is driven by complaints, Vonn said. That doesn’t work in a big data age, because its systems are invisible to us.

“How would you ever know? The process is opaque. It’s not somebody standing at a counter asking a question they are not authorized to ask about your personal information; it’s all happening behind closed doors,” Vonn said.

The evolution of intelligence-based policing and “function creep” we are witnessing with the broadening scope of Project Wide Awake signals the need for better oversight, Vonn said.

“We have to know and be confident that there is audit and accountability happening embedded within the RCMP and also available to the independent oversight body.”

“A complaints-driven process isn’t going to take us where we need to go.”  [Tyee]

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