The Canada Revenue Agency is scrutinizing the Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and other social media
posts of Canadians it suspects could be cheating on their taxes.
That's just one example of the agency's increasing focus on what it can learn by collecting and analyzing
many kinds of data — both its own internally generated information and what it calls "publicly available
"The CRA does practice risk-based compliance, so for taxpayers identified as high risk, any relevant,
publicly available information relating to the specific risk-based factors for the taxpayer may be
consulted as part of our fact-gathering processes," said spokesperson David Walters.
Among those considered high risk are wealthy Canadians with offshore bank accounts, said Jean-
François Ruel, director of CRA's Strategy and Integration Branch.
"If we go with high-risk, high-wealth individuals that do offshore [banking], then we would look at all
information that is public for compliance action."
Tobi Cohen, spokesperson for the privacy commissioner, said CRA notified it of its plan to collect
publicly available information from social media in connection with "tax fraud and non-compliance risk
analysis, audits and investigations."
However, David Christopher, of the advocacy group Open Media, said his organization opposes
government agencies monitoring what Canadians are saying on social media.
"When Canadians post something on Facebook, they believe that they are sharing that with their friends
and with their family. They don't believe that they are sharing that with some government bureaucrat in
Ottawa," he said.
"Unfortunately, Facebook's privacy settings are notoriously complex and many people might think that
they are posting something to their friends and it ends up getting shared with the whole world."
The revelation that the Canada Revenue Agency is checking social media posts comes as the agency is also expanding its use of cutting-edge technology and data analysis to better catch tax cheats, to target people for audits and to improve its service for Canadians.
Business intelligence, also known as big data, is a rapidly growing area within CRA. In 2016 alone, the
agency posted three separate privacy impact assessments centred on its plans to use business
intelligence techniques in its operations.
Former CRA commissioner Andrew Treusch says technology is changing the way the agency operates.
"Evolving technology is having a significant impact on our approach to compliance," he wrote in the
agency's 2016-17 Report on Planning and Priorities.
"Data analysis and business intelligence are providing us with better insight into taxpayer behaviours,
allowing us to spend less time and effort on lower-risk groups of taxpayers and focus our resources on
dealing with deliberate non-compliance."
In the report, the agency says business intelligence, which includes "mining accessible data," is a key
"This is because of the far-reaching opportunities it presents to enhance strategies for compliance,
services and debt collection. Business intelligence encompasses big data to improve non-compliance
detection (predictive analytics) and behavioural economics (such as 'nudging') to improve compliance."
An internal CRA document, which CBC News first found on the website of the U.S Internal Revenue
Service, outlines CRA's plans to use business intelligence techniques in the future.
The document, prepared in 2014, describes plans to move into such areas as predictive analytics, which
can use data and algorithms to help officials decide whether someone who hasn't paid their taxes should
get a gentle reminder, a phone call or an audit. 'When Canadians post something on Facebook, they believe that they are sharing that with their friends … They don't believe that they are sharing that with some government bureaucrat in Ottawa.' - David Christopher, OpenMedia spokesperson
A chart in the document indicates CRA also planned to get data to analyze from "web and social media."
Ruel said while the agency was looking into the prospect at the time, it is not currently planning to
include social media analysis as part of the business intelligence side of its operations.
"A lot of steps and a lot of work in terms of privacy would have to be done first and it's not one of the
priorities right now."However, he said the business intelligence unit does analyze data from CRA's interactions with Canadians through its own Twitter and YouTube accounts.
"When they communicate with us, we analyze this information to make sure that we understand what is
happening," Ruel said. "If there is concern around scams, for example, we will take that information and
then create a communications strategy to make sure that people have the information that they need."