Later this morning, U.S. President Barack Obama will give a speech on U.S. surveillance activities in which he is expected to establish new limitations on the program. While the measures will likely fall well short of what many believe is necessary, it is notable that the surveillance issue has emerged as a significant political issue since the Snowden leaks and the U.S. government has recognized the need to address it.
Reaction to the Snowden leaks in the U.S. has not been limited to political responses. In recent months, Verizon and AT&T, the two U.S. telecom giants, announced plans to issue regular transparency reports on the number of law enforcement requests they receive for customer information. The telecom transparency reports come following a similar trend from leading Internet companies such as Google, Twitter, Microsoft, and Facebook.
The U.S. reaction stands in stark contrast to the situation in Canada. Canadian government officials have said little about Canadian surveillance activities, despite leaks of spying activities, cooperation with the NSA, a federal court decision that criticized the intelligence agencies for misleading the court, and a domestic metadata program which remains shrouded in secrecy. In fact, the government seems to have moved in the opposite direction, by adopting a lower threshold for warrants seeking metadata than is required for standard warrants in Bill C-13.
Moreover, Canada’s telecom companies remain secretive about their participation in the surveillance activities, with no transparency reports and no public indications of their willingness to disclose customer information without a court order. With the U.S. telcos now on board, the telecom transparency gap in Canada has become particularly noteworthy.
Under Canadian law, Canadian telecom companies and Internet providers are permitted to disclose customer information without a court order as part of a lawful investigation. According to data obtained under Access to Information, we know that the RCMP has successfully obtained such information tens of thousands of times. Moreover, Bill C-13, the so-called “cyberbullying” bill includes a provision that is likely to increase the number of voluntary disclosures since it grants telecom companies and ISPs complete immunity from any civil or criminal liability for such disclosures.
Canadians deserve to know more about government surveillance activities, more about whether Canadian oversight is sufficient, and more about how companies such as Bell, Rogers, and Telus handle their personal information. This includes how many requests they receive for subscriber information, the reasons for the requests, how often they comply without a warrant, and how often they require court oversight before disclosing the information. The shameful Canadian surveillance silence – from both government and the telecom sector – must end with an open conversation about Canadian activities and whether current law strikes the right balance.