The debate over Bill C-13, the government’s latest lawful access bill, is set to resume shortly. The government has argued that the bill should not raise concerns since new police powers involve court oversight and the mandatory warrantless disclosure provisions that raised widespread concern in the last bill have been removed. While that is the government’s talking points, I’ve posted on how this bill now includes incentives for telecom companies and other intermediaries to disclose subscriber information without court oversight since it grants them full civil and criminal immunity for doing so. Moreover, newly released data suggests that the telecom companies don’t seem to need much of an incentive as they are already disclosing subscriber data on thousands of Canadians every year without court oversight.
This week, the government responded to NDP MP Charmaine Borg’s request for information on government agencies requests to telecom providers for customer information. The data reveals that the telecom companies have established law enforcement databases that provides ready access to subscriber information. For example, the Competition Bureau reports that it “accessed the Bell Canada Law Enforcement Database” 20 times in 2012-13. The wording may be important, since the Bureau indicates that it accessed the information, rather than Bell provided it. It is not clear what oversight or review is used before a government agency may access the Bell database.
The Canada Border Services Agency report featured the biggest numbers with 18,849 requests in one year for subscriber information including geolocation data and call records. The CBSA obtained a warrant in 52 cases with all other cases involving a simple request without court oversight. The telecom providers fulfilled the requests virtually every time – 18,824 – and the CBSA paid between $1.00 and $3.00 per request. The RCMP presumably has far higher numbers, but it says that it does not keep track in a centralized database (an earlier access to information request revealed even bigger numbers).
While this data provides only a glimpse at warrantless disclosure of subscriber information, it confirms fears that telecom companies provide such information tens of thousands of times every year without court oversight (and perhaps without even internal oversight if access to a database is granted). The law may grant telecom companies the right to disclose subscriber information without a warrant, but the pervasive warrantless disclosure is deeply troubling and represents an abdication by telecom providers of their responsibility to safeguard the privacy of their subscribers.