By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
The federal Aboriginal Affairs department and Justice Canada gathered personal information about a First Nations children’s advocate who launched a human rights complaint against Ottawa, the privacy watchdog has found.
The Office of the Privacy Commissioner found that officials in both departments began collecting personal information about Cindy Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, in February 2010.
“(The two departments) have repeatedly accessed, viewed, read, copied and recorded personal information from (Blackstock’s) personal Facebook page,” said the report.
The report said the gathered information was “unrelated to to their ordinary operating activities.”
Blackstock filed her complaint last March after discovering, through an Access to Information request, that federal officials had accessed her personal Facebook page. Aboriginal Affairs also launched its own internal probe, but found its officials had not breached her privacy.
The privacy investigation found that officials took “multiple screen shots” of Blackstock’s Facebook page along with excerpts. There was no evidence, however, that any federal officials tried to “friend” Blackstock to obtain information.
In its report, the privacy watchdog told both departments to destroy any personal information “to the extent permitted by law” about Blackstock and any other individual officials gathered in the course of their snooping.
It also recommended that the departments “cease and desist from accessing and viewing personal information posted to (Blackstock’s) personal Facebook page.”
The report also recommended the departments create internal policies and guidelines governing the collection of personal information on social media sites by federal officials.
The report said both departments “have accepted our recommendations in full.”
Blackstock said she hoped the federal government would follow through with the recommendations.
“It is both a relief and also shock,” said Blackstock. “In some ways you are a naive person in this country, you kind of hope that what you are seeing isn’t true and it clearly is true.”
Blackstock, along with the Assembly of First Nations, launched a human rights complaint against Ottawa over alleged underfunding of child welfare services on First Nations reserve. The human rights complaint was amended to include allegations that the federal government retaliated against Blackstock over the complaint by spying on her activities.
The complaint is currently before the Human Rights Tribunal. It recently emerged that Aboriginal Affairs failed to disclose 50,000 documents related to the case during the discovery process.
The federal watchdog also investigated two other complaints leveled by Blackstock, but found no other privacy breaches.
Blackstock alleged that Aboriginal Affairs and Justice Canada officials were also monitoring her speaking engagements and sharing detailed reports within the departments.
The watchdog found that the departments “were collecting and sharing that information in direct relation to the operating programs or activities of (Aboriginal Affairs) and in relations to ongoing litigation.”
Blackstock also alleged that Aboriginal Affairs officials accessed her Indian status registry which contains information about her family.
The report said that investigators with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner could find no evidence Aboriginal Affairs officials accessed her Indian status file because the department keeps no record of people who access the registry. Both departments also denied accessing the file in relation to the ongoing litigation before the Human Rights Tribunal.
Blackstock discovered that her Indian status registry had been accessed on Nov. 4, 2010 and Nov. 17, 2011.
“In the absence of an audit trail or log documenting instances of access to the complainant’s (status record) it was impossible to determine whether or not that record had been used or accessed inappropriately,” said the report. “Nor did we find evidence to support the allegation that the complainant’s records were being used as part of a larger effort to uncover ulterior motives that the Caring Society is deemed to have had when it filed a human rights complaint against the government of Canada.”
The report recommended that Aboriginal Affairs create audit logs to track when officials access the Indian status registry.
The department accepted the recommendation.