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RCMP launches review of its social media monitoring operation

The RCMP has launched an internal review to make sure it’s obeying the law in the way it monitors Canadians’ social media accounts, according to documents obtained by CBC News.

The national police force says it keeps an eye on social media accounts (Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, among others) in two ways: reactively, after a crime has been committed, and proactively, to detect and prevent crimes.

During the recent election campaign, the RCMP even compiled daily threat reports on online expressions of hate targeting federal political leaders.

Now, the RCMP is auditing those techniques to make sure they agree with the law.

“How this information is handled and managed needs to be consistent across the country to ensure that court requirements are adhered to and that privacy concerns are met,” says a summary of the audit, obtained by CBC News through access to information.

“Police authority to use investigative techniques, such as access to social media accounts and phone records, while respecting privacy rights, is still being clarified.”

The audit will determine “if RCMP use of open-source access/information is consistent with applicable policy and legislation,” says the summary document.

RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Caroline Duval said the force uses open-source monitoring (which means watching something already publicly available online) during high-risk situations — standoffs involving active shooters, for example — and to locate missing people or identify emerging threats.

Duval said police even tracked down a direct death threat against a federally elected official in 2018 after keeping an eye on social media posts.

“The collection of open-source intelligence does not include private information, such as emails or private messages,” she said in an email to CBC News.

“Surveillance of any private communication requires judicial authorization.”

A push for clear guidelines

Privacy experts are calling for the imposition of clear controls on the RCMP’s online monitoring.

Christopher Parsons, a senior research associate at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, said there’s a mistaken belief out there that anything published online is fair game for the police.

“In Canada when you publish, say, on Twitter or a public Facebook message or something like that, you still actually retain an element of control and privacy over what’s stated,” he said.

“So before the government can go and download, access, read or analyze what you’ve put up, they have to have a direct and clear reason. And it can’t be something like, ‘What we want is to know what’s going on in Toronto. So we’re monitoring all communications in Toronto.’ That would be a disproportionate form of mass surveillance.”

Parsons said that kind of surveillance can get dangerous for individuals when police interpret snarky or humorous tweets as threats.

Back in 2012, a U.K. tourist was denied entry to the U.S. after tweeting that he was going to “destroy America”  — which is slang for “party.”

“We assume that what we’ve put online is understood by the people who receive it, and there’s all sorts of situations of social media monitoring, especially cases out of the U.S., where people have had very, very severe and problematic … consequences for entirely banal, legitimate, innocent tweets,” Parsons said.

He said he wants to see the RCMP set some firm guidelines for social media monitoring.

“I think generally Canadians should be concerned, because not all Canadians know they’re under suspicion,” he said.

“Moreover, those who are in privileged groups within Canada, especially people of Caucasian descent, it’s really important for us to stand up and say, ‘No, there has to be a policy.’ You can’t do this just willy-nilly, because we know that there’s a huge population in Canada that does face inappropriate policing.”

Review to be made public in 2020

Duval said the RCMP’s audit will look at how its social media sleuthing fits in with the Criminal Code, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Access to Information Act, the Privacy Act, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act and the Code of Conduct of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

The RCMP use an off-the-shelf program called Social Studio to analyze social media. The operation is called Project Wide Awake, as was first reported by The Tyee, and it grew out of a deadly 2014 shooting in Moncton, N.B., that took the lives of three RCMP officers.

A subsequent review of the incident, known as the MacNeil Report, recommended the force use a real-time social media analysis tool to help identify operational risks and improve public communication.

The RCMP said it expects the audit to wrap up and be made public in summer 2020.

CBC

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