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© Dado Ruvic / Reuters/Reuters

Browsing your social media profile is not typical of what most of us would expect government ministries to be up to. But a mass of anecdotal evidence suggests that a variety of federal departments are visiting a lot of social media sites, and possibly gathering information on a lot of Canadians.

That's why Chantal Bernier, the interim privacy commissioner of Canada, was right to ask Tony Clement, the President of the Treasury Board – for lack of any more obvious addressee – to come up with "clear, mandatory guidance" on the government's use of what it may find on social media.

Though the board is looking into it, Mr. Clement professed to be "a bit skeptical" that there is a problem: "This is all publicly available information. People freely make that choice."

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Do they? Do Canadians consciously accept that the Ministry of This-or-That will browse their Facebook page, or their LinkedIn profile? Does the Ministry upload its own smiling photo in return? Is it compiling databases of information? What is it using them for? When is that reasonable, and when unreasonable?

And the phrase "publicly available" is dubious, if there is no clear public purpose for gathering particular information. Most people would accept government delving into someone's online presence, if there is reason to believe that someone is, say, fraudulently collecting unemployment insurance payments, or is spying on the government on behalf of a foreign power, or perhaps even to supplement an income-tax audit.

The Privacy Act does get at some of these points, but the convoluted language of statutes isn't always good at articulating what really matters.

Ms. Bernier is right that there's a need for pointed, unambiguous instructions on when government should, and should not, delve into the social media profiles of Canadians. Even in public, privacy matters.

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