Yah, that’s happening here, too.
In 2011, your government and law enforcement agencies looked at your telecom and social media activity 1.2 million times. That’s once every 27 seconds, according to Dr. Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa law professor and Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law.
The numbers come from the telecom companies themselves, who were able to anonymously make the information available to privacy watchdogs.
In secret, and with virtually no oversight, various government agencies have been discretely sending requests for information on Canadian user data from places like Ebay, Google, and all the telecom companies operating in Canada.
And those companies have been discretely sending all kinds of information back without telling you.
In fact, even if you wanted to find that information out, the chances are very good you’d have the door slammed in your face. And it wouldn’t matter which door you went to, because your government is just as uninterested in telling you what they’ve been looking for. When asked about the requests, Stephen Harper downplayed their significance. Relax folks. It’s all nice and legal. Nothing to see here. Industry Minister James Moore just flat-out refused to comment on it. The telecoms have been taking a similar stance, and probably won’t say anything unless plied with warrants and candy – ironic, since the information itself is up for grabs, but the reasons and content of the information is highly secret.
So what have they been looking for?
The old standby here would be that catch-all bogeyman for western nations, Terrorism. But that can’t be the only reason they’ve been scouring your metadata – unless, of course, we’re going to assume there are millions of potential terrorists roaming free in Canada.
There’s also that other nasty scare tactic, internet crime. It comes in all kinds of flavours, from illegal pornography to blackmail to scams and bullying. In fact, as one local law enforcement officer recently admitted in a story published by the Times, “Just because people think it’s anonymous, I can tell you in no way is it anonymous. We have ways within our investigations to identify at least the computer and the service provider…”
The officer was speaking on the assumed anonymity of a local gossip site, but the question must be asked, do these “ways within our investigations” include warrantless information requests handed over without oversight, and without consequence for either police or the telecom providers?
If so, their jobs are about to get a lot easier. There are two bills currently in the works which would radically expand their ability to just drop in on your information unannounced, and do with as they saw fit. One of them is supposed to protect you from online bullies (Bill C-13, the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act), but it also happens to make it possible for telecoms to hand over your information while granting them full immunity from civil or legal liability – meaning nobody, including you, gets to sue them for breaching your privacy.
And the other one (S-4, The Digital Privacy Act), which is supposed to protect Canadians from security breaches involving their private information, which companies routinely delay or cover up (oh, the irony!) in fact would allow for these same powers of warrantless information requests to be passed on to pretty much anyone investigating any suspected breach of any law – thus opening a Pandora’s Box of corporate information-swapping without the knowledge of Canadian citizens.
According to an article written by Alex Boutilier, a reporter for the Toronto Star, the Canadian Border Services Agency was responsible for almost 19,000 requests for information in a single year – mostly for “basic subscriber information”. In that same article, Geist explains that “basic subscriber information” is “a very broad term which allows policing agencies to link Internet activity to a user’s identity.” Where warrants were issued, police were in some cases able to get the actual content of voice messages and emails. In the meantime, some telecoms are busy building massive databases of general information for police services to scour in an effort to save time and streamline the process of making the requests.
Keeping Canada safe and orderly is a big, tough, time-consuming job. But turning this country into a surveillance state doesn’t do a single thing to keep us safe from our own government, or from our law enforcement agencies. Ask North Korea. Ask China.
It’s clear that a lot more needs to be done to make this process transparent so Canadians can see what the authorities are up to. They can start by making telecoms, government, and law enforcement agencies responsible for alerting citizens when an information request is taking place, and giving Canadians a chance to contest it if they feel it is unnecessary. Before the fact, not after.
It’s not enough for Canada to just be safe. It also must remain free.