Read the CBC’s coverage of this letter (27 June 2018)

The Citizen Lab Raises Human Rights Concerns in Letter to Canada’s National Energy Board regarding “Security Threat Monitoring Services” Request for Information

By Cynthia Khoo

Today, Director Ron Deibert on behalf of the Citizen Lab sent a letter to the National Energy Board (NEB) raising critical questions and concerns in response to the NEB issuing a Request for Information (RFI) about “security threat monitoring services”. As reported by the CBC, the NEB appears to be seeking technological tools and services with “[r]eal-time capability to algorithmically process vast amounts of traditional media, open source and public social media data in both English and French.” The tool would monitor public online activities and communications including “blogs, review sites, forums, comment boards and social media platforms (at a minimum: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and LinkedIn)”, related to “industry sectors of interest”, specifically Energy, Environment, Government, and Infrastructure.

The tools and services as the RFI describes raises a number of significant human rights issues and implicates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This is particularly the case in light of heightened political tensions around energy development policy in Canada, specifically in context of projects such as the Trans Mountain Pipeline and its controversial acquisition by the federal government. Energy development is a consistent field of vigorous political engagement and online expression, particularly by environmental groups, human rights activists, Indigenous land and water defenders, the press, and other impacted communities.

The NEB appears to seek ubiquitous real-time scrutiny of the online public activities and communications of groups and individuals politically engaged in energy policy issues in Canada. The Citizen Lab is concerned that this will result in disproportionate and unconstitutional tracking, monitoring, and targeting of these and other impacted groups and individuals, chilling freedom of expression, democratic engagement, and related activities. As such, the letter addressed to the National Energy Board poses a number of questions to seek further clarity from the NEB regarding its RFI and the sought tools and services’ potential impact on people’s Charter rights and freedoms throughout Canada.

The Citizen Lab’s letter asks two sets of questions to the NEB. The first set addresses issues concerning data protection, personal information, and online communications. These questions ask the NEB to clarify, for example:

  • What actions might the NEB take based on the collected data and monitored activities?
  • Who will own the data collected by the third-party vendor?
  • How will the NEB ensure that any inferences or conclusions drawn from the monitored data and communications are accurate and correct?
  • If private information is captured in the monitoring and analysis, how will the NEB ensure the protection, security, and responsible treatment of such information?
  • Will any information, data, communications, or inferences captured by the sought tools and services be shared with third parties or other governmental agencies, and if so, which ones and under what circumstances?

The second set of questions addresses the NEB’s procurement process, and invites the NEB to provide transparency in response to concerns such as:

  • Given that the RFI was published on June 19, 2018 and is only open for a brief, ten-day period, did the NEB discuss this RFI or related matters with any vendors before its publication?
  • Why does the NEB require the described monitoring services to include the United States as a geographic area of focus?
  • What is the relationship between the NEB and existing law enforcement and security agencies in identifying and responding to threats related to the NEB’s activities?
  • Are the NEB’s current tools and systems inadequate to perform the tasks listed in its rationale for algorithmic public monitoring?
  • What will be the role and extent of access and control to the collected data and information by responding vendors, and will the NEB place any conditions on successful bidders in the way of corporate social responsibility and protection of human rights?

The NEB has expressed intent to organize demonstrations of interested vendors’ tools and services in early July, immediately after the rapidly approaching closing date. Given the pressing issues at stake, we believe the public is entitled to a prompt and fulsome response from the National Energy Board on these issues.

Read the letter and full set of questions here.


With thanks to Lex Gill for review and input.

Author Bio

Cynthia Khoo is a digital rights lawyer and Google Policy Fellow at the Citizen Lab.