Canadians Debate Online Snooping Laws

Matt O'Conner
OTTAWA — Canada is considering legislation that many critics in that country fear would strike a devastating blow to their online privacy by giving governmental agencies unprecedented power to intercept and act on private communications.

“There are dark clouds on the horizon,” wrote Toronto Star columnist Michael Geist in an article titled, “Say no to Big Brother plan for Internet.”

“[The government seeks] an Internet with ubiquitous surveillance featuring real-time capabilities to monitor online activity,” Geist continued. “It is an internet that would seek to cut off subscriber access based on mere allegations of wrongdoing, without due process or oversight from a judge or jury.”

Commonly referred to as the “lawful access” initiative, the proposal has been the subject of rabid debate since 2002, when the government began soliciting comments from interested parties on Canada’s existing rules regarding the lawful interception of private communications.

Critics like Geist have tried to stir public sentiment against any such legislation by comparing it to the U.S. Patriot Act.

At a February meeting with representatives from the telecommunications industry, Canada’s departments of Industry, Justice and Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness laid out the specifics of the legislation, which would require phone and Internet service providers to refit their networks to allow for real-time interception of communications by law enforcement and national security agencies — without prior notice and without court order.

“Legislation governing lawful access was originally designed for rotary telephones, not email or the Internet,” said Solicitor General Lawrence MacAulay during the presentation. “Dated laws allow criminals and terrorists to use technology to hide their illicit activities. This initiative is about keeping our laws current so that the police can do their job and keep Canadians safe.”

MacAuley said that updating access laws is essential to help investigative agencies fight crimes such as terrorism, child pornography, drug trafficking, smuggling, Internet and telemarketing fraud, price fixing and money laundering.

But Privacy Commissioner George Radowski issued an open letter criticizing the proposal for giving the government sweeping and excessive power to snoop on private individuals.

“The interception and monitoring of private communications is a highly intrusive activity that strikes at the heart of the right to privacy,” Radowski wrote. “If Canadians can no longer feel secure that their web surfing and their electronic communications are, in fact, private, this will mark a grave, needless and unjustifiable deterioration of privacy rights in our country.”

What’s more, Radowski said, the government has not demonstrated that there is a serious problem with the country’s existing online surveillance policy.

Columnist Geist also pointed out that the required retrofitting of networks would cost service providers hundreds of millions of dollars, adding: “While some changes may be needed for security purposes, the government has yet to make the case for why the current set of powers, which include cybercrime and wiretapping provisions, are insufficient. [And] there has been no evidence provided that this approach is the least privacy-invasive alternative.”