News / Canada

Federal benefits workers told to stay offline when vetting applications

OTTAWA — Federal workers whose job it is to determine whether someone is eligible for employment, disability or seniors' benefits have been told to stop being amateur sleuths by searching the Facebook profiles of applicants.

The order came after senior officials learned that staff were logging on to social media websites to check on any suspicions they had with someone's application for Canada Pension Plan disability benefits.

And now other benefit programs — employment insurance, seniors' benefits like old age security and the guaranteed income supplement — have been subjected to the same reminder.

The only personal information the department is allowed to collect has to come from the applicant or from a third party like a doctor, employer, or family member, provided the applicant consents.

A briefing note prepared for a senior official in Employment and Social Development Canada last year says that employees determining eligibility for CPP or old age security payments shouldn't be starting an "investigation, surveillance, or the collection and use of information from the Internet, newspapers, funeral homes or any other public sources in carrying out their administrative decision-making responsibilities."

The briefing note provides a series of detailed examples of online searches that are considered to be over the line.

They include:

— Looking up an online obituary notice for an application for CPP survivor benefits;

— "Friending" a CPP disability claimant on Facebook to see if pictures provide evidence that the applicant can in fact work;

— Looking up municipal property information to see if someone has lived in the country long enough to qualify for old age security benefits.

The briefing note says that using publicly available information like social media posts and even address listings could be considered "an invasion of privacy" and a violation of the Privacy Act and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Canadian Press obtained a copy of the briefing note under the Access to Information Act.

A spokesman for Employment and Social Development Canada said that staff have reviewed a very small number of cases where such information was collected, but wasn't used in deciding whether someone qualified for benefits.

It was three years ago this month that officials at ESDC received an internal query about collecting and using publicly available personal information in determining eligibility for CPP disability benefits.

The department said there is no evidence that such sleuthing activity occurs widely, but neither was there an explicit policy about how and whether to use such information.

By the summer of 2015, staff who worked in the CPP disability program, including medical adjudicators, were given their new guidelines.

Last year, the policy took on a broader view when staff in programs that included employment insurance, old age security and the guaranteed income supplement were told to steer clear of social media in determining eligibility.

Staff were reminded that if they came across something odd in a file, including anything that could be easily found online, they were to send it to the wing of the department that investigates and roots out fraud in the federal benefits system.

The department said it "takes privacy and the protection of personal information seriously" and staff "do not collect or use publicly available personal information in determining entitlement" to benefit programs. 

"In the rare circumstances that the department becomes aware of publicly available personal information (e.g. from a third party) that indicates that there may be fraud or abuse of the program, the department will conduct an investigation and contact the individual in question.

— Follow @jpress on Twitter.

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