Toronto Star's View: Canada should stop enlisting...
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Apr 30, 2014  |  Vote 0    0

Toronto Star's View: Canada should stop enlisting telecoms in secret violations of privacy


Canadians are being watched as never before. On a daily basis — in secret and often without a warrant — government agencies have asked telecom and social media providers for personal information on thousands of customers. There were almost 1.2 million requests in 2011 alone, an astonishing intrusion into personal privacy.

Equally disturbing is that this practice remains cloaked in unwarranted secrecy, even from Canada’s privacy watchdog, despite repeated requests for information.

As a flurry of concern in Parliament showed, questions abound. Why do government agencies want customer data on so many people? What exactly are they learning? And what safeguards — if any — exist to protect the public from excessive intrusion? Canadians are entitled to answers but they’ve been stonewalled by government and industry alike.

This much is clear: as far as Canadians’ online information is concerned, Big Brother is most certainly watching. And with co-operation from the big telecom and social media providers.

A glimpse into this practice was revealed on Tuesday when the federal privacy commissioner explained what happened when 13 companies, including Google, Twitter, eBay and Canada’s giant telecoms, were asked about information being sought by government agencies. None answered individually, but nine — it’s not clear which — provided aggregate data, through a lawyer, indicating that in 2011 there were almost 1.2 million requests.

Three of the nine companies, again it’s not clear which, went further to reveal that information was handed over on almost 785,000 users and accounts. Privacy experts expressed shock over the sheer number of these requests. And with good cause, especially since all this is happening in such a hidden way.

Interim privacy commissioner Chantal Bernier said her office has tried many times to shed some light on this only to be rebuffed by telecom and social media providers. Instead of the full and frank disclosure the public deserves, they provided only “very general comments.” As a result, it’s not known how many requests are accompanied by a search warrant, or even what kind of information government agencies are keen to find.

When challenged on this in question period on Wednesday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper attempted to downplay the significance of government intrusions. Various law enforcement and other agencies do indeed request information from telecom companies, but “always do this in accordance with the law,” Harper said. “They always seek a warrant when they are required to do so.”

But this misses the point. Warrants obviously weren’t issued for a staggering 1.2 million searches in 2011. Many of these requests were granted with no warrant at all and it’s scant comfort to hear Harper say this dubious practice falls fully within the law.

Some indication of the extent of warrantless searches can be found in documents tabled in Parliament showing that the Canada Border Services Agency made more than 18,800 requests for information from telecom and Internet providers over a recent one-year period. Almost all were fulfilled, with warrants obtained in just 52 of those cases.

Bernier said new measures are needed to let Canadians see the full scope of warrantless access to their personal customer information. She’s right. And a Conservative-led Parliament should demand no less.

At the very least, telecom and social media providers should be required to inform people when their data is passed — without court oversight — to a government agency. Companies should also explain what exactly is being offered up. If this material is of a general and innocuous nature, involving a Statistics Canada research project for example, there should be no harm in letting individuals know.

Canadians value their privacy. And it’s important that laws protecting this fundamental right keep pace with their increasingly online lives.

Toronto Star

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