Police surveillance

Privacy watchdog sounds alarm on Conservative e-snooping legislation

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable (Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail)

The Harper government intends to make it easier for police to monitor Canadians’ Internet and smartphone activity – but the country’s privacy watchdog warned Thursday that Ottawa hasn’t justified what threatens to be an erosion of fundamental rights.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has confirmed in recent weeks that the Conservatives intend to revive legislation they did not manage to pass as a minority government – bills that would give police new capabilities to conduct electronic surveillance in the Internet age.

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Jennifer Stoddart, the federal Privacy Commissioner, wrote the Harper government Thursday to register her “deep concerns” about these new surveillance powers and note that it has so far failed to demonstrate why this is the best course of action.

“Despite repeated calls, no systematic case has yet been made to justify the extent of the new investigative capabilities that would have been created by the bill,” she wrote.

The changes eyed by the Tories, spread out over three bills in the last Parliament, would also have given police greater power to obtain data gathered by Internet service providers.

“These bills went far beyond simply maintaining investigative capacity or modernizing search powers,” Ms. Stoddart wrote.

“Rather, they added significant new capabilities for investigators to track, and search and seize digital information about individuals.”

The Conservatives have not specified whether they intend to bring back all three bills or amend their legislative plans in any way. Now that the Tories hold a majority of seats in the Commons – and control the Senate – they can pass any legislation they want.

One piece of legislation that will likely be revived, the Investigative Powers for the 21st Century Act, would have required Internet service providers to install surveillance technology on their networks.

It also would have forced mandatory disclosure of customer information on demand and without court oversight. This would obliged all ISPs to surrender customer details to the police including names, addresses, email address as well as the unique identifier number that every computer connection to the Internet is assigned.

“These bills went far beyond simply maintaining investigative capacity or modernizing search powers,” Ms. Stoddart said in her letter. “Rather, they added significant new capabilities for investigators to track, and search and seize digital information about individuals. “

Ms. Stoddart said Ottawa should consider alternatives to the changes they are planning.

“Canadian authorities have yet to provide the public with evidence to suggest that CSIS or Canadian police cannot perform their duties under the current regime,” she wrote.

“If the concern of law enforcement agencies is that it is difficult to obtain warrants or judicial authorization in a timely way, these administrative challenges should be addressed by administrative solutions rather than by weakening long-standing legal principles that uphold Canadians’ fundamental freedoms.”

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