PM Harper visits the Arc de Triomphe with Steven Blaney by Stephen Harper (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

PM Harper visits the Arc de Triomphe with Steven Blaney by Stephen Harper (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


“Total Information Awareness”: The Disastrous Privacy Consequences of Bill C-51

The House of Commons debate over Bill C-51, the anti-terrorism bill, began yesterday with strong opposition from the NDP, disappointing support from the Liberals, and an effort to politicize seemingly any criticism or analysis from the Conservative government. With the government already serving notice that it will limit debate, the hopes for a non-partisan, in-depth analysis of the anti-terrorism legislation may have already been dashed. This is an incredibly troubling development since the proposed legislation has all the hallmarks of being pulled together quickly with limited analysis. Yet both the Conservatives and Liberals seem content to stick to breezy talking points rather than genuinely work toward a bill that provides Canadians with better safeguards against security threats while also preserving privacy and instituting effective oversight.

The only detailed review to date has come from Professors Kent Roach and Craig Forcese. Their ongoing work – three lengthy background papers so far (Advocating or Promoting Terrorism, new CSIS powers, expanded information sharing) – provides by far the most exhaustive analysis of the bill and is a must-read for anyone concerned with the issue. Indeed, once you have read their work, it becomes readily apparent that all should be concerned with this legislation. Much of the focus to date has been on the lack of oversight and the expansive new powers granted to CSIS. However, the privacy implications of Bill C-51′s information sharing provisions also cry out for study and reform.

At first glance, expanding information sharing within government seems like a good idea since the consequences of failing to head-off a terrorist attack because one government institution was unaware of what another knew could be devastating. Given the lack of Liberal study (it is simply not possible that the party fully assessed the legislation before pledging its support), it perhaps unsurprising that leader Justin Trudeau identifies expanded information sharing as one of the positive aspects of the bill.

However, Bill C-51′s Security of Canada Information Sharing Act, a bill within the bill, goes far further than sharing information related to terrorist activity. As Roach and Forcese persuasively argue, the bill effectively creates a “total information awareness” approach that represents a radical shift away from our traditional understanding of public sector privacy protection.

Daniel Therrien, the Privacy Commissioner of Canada appointed by this government less than a year ago, was the first to focus on the privacy implications of Bill C-51. Within hours of release of the bill, Therrien warned:

At this early stage, I can say that I am concerned with the breadth of the new authorities to be conferred by the proposed new Security of Canada Information Sharing Act.  This Act would seemingly allow departments and agencies to share the personal information of all individuals, including ordinary Canadians who may not be suspected of terrorist activities, for the purpose of detecting and identifying new security threats.  It is not clear that this would be a proportional measure that respects the privacy rights of Canadians. In the public discussion on Bill C-51, it will be important to be clear about whose information would be shared with national security agencies, for which specific purpose and under what conditions, including any applicable safeguards.

Roach and Forcese dig further into this issue, concluding that the information sharing provisions are excessive and unbalanced. There is much to digest, but the privacy concerns largely come down to three linked issues:

  • First, the bill permits information sharing across government for an incredibly wide range of purposes, most of which have nothing to do with terrorism (“It is, quite simply, the broadest concept of security that we have ever seen codified into law in Canada.”).
  • Second, the scope of sharing is remarkably broad: 17 government institutions with the prospect of cabinet expansion as well as further disclosure “to any person, for any purpose.”
  • Third, the oversight over public sector privacy has long been viewed as inadequate. In fact, calls for Privacy Act reform date back over three decades. The notion that the law is equipped to deal with this massive expansion in sharing personal information is simply not credible.

A more detailed look at each issue follows below. The cumulative effect is to grant government near-total power to share information for purposes that extend far beyond terrorism with few safeguards or privacy protections.

1.    Information sharing purposes

The bill opens the door to information sharing due to “activity that undermines the security of Canada.” Rather than using the CSIS Act definition, however, it creates a new expansive definition that covers:

any activity, including any of the following activities, if it undermines the sovereignty, security or territorial integrity of Canada or the lives or the security of the people of Canada: (a) interference with the capability of the Government of Canada in relation to intelligence, defence, border operations, public safety, the administration of justice, diplomatic or consular relations, or the economic or financial stability of Canada;
b) changing or unduly influencing a government in Canada by force or unlawful means;
c) espionage, sabotage or covert foreign-influenced activities;
d) terrorism;
e) proliferation of nuclear, chemical, radiological or biological weapons;
f) interference with critical infrastructure;
g) interference with the global information infrastructure, as defined in section 273.61 of the National Defence Act; [that provision reads: ““global information infrastructure” includes electromagnetic emissions, communications systems, information technology systems and networks, and any data or technical information carried on, contained in or relating to those emissions, systems or networks.”]
h) an activity that causes serious harm to a person or their property because of that person’s association with Canada; and
i) an activity that takes place in Canada and undermines the security of another state. For greater certainty, it does not include lawful advocacy, protest, dissent and artistic expression.

Terrorism is included within the definition, but several of these provisions would seemingly allow for information sharing for almost any investigative purpose, particularly “public safety” and the “economic or financial stability of Canada” (think of the government’s recent reaction to the proposed CP strike, which was said to have major implications for the protection of the Canadian economy).

2.    Scope of Sharing

The government not only opens the door to sharing information for a myriad of non-terrorism purposes, but it also permits access for a broad array of government institutions and departments. The bill currently identifies the following 17 institutions and departments:

  • Canadian Border Services Agency
  • Canada Revenue Agency
  • Canadian Armed Forces
  • Canadian Food Inspection Agency
  • Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission
  • CSIS
  • CSE
  • Citizen and Immigration
  • Finance
  • Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development
  • Health
  • National Defence
  • Public Safety
  • Transport
  • Public Health Agency
  • RCMP

That list can grow, however, with cabinet empowered to add institutions and departments by regulation. Moreover, the inclusion of CSE, which has been the focal point of the Internet surveillance debate due to the Snowden revelations, suggests that CSE information could be readily shared across government departments despite repeated claims that its work does not target Canadians.

In addition to this form of information sharing, the bill also permits additional use and disclosure of information “in accordance with the law…to any person, for any purpose.” Section 6 states:

For greater certainty, nothing in this Act prevents a head, or their delegate, who receives information under subsection 5(1) from, in accordance with the law, using that information, or further disclosing it to any person, for any purpose.

Roach and Forcese note that “in accordance with the law” is unclear, leaving the prospect of literally permitting disclosure to anyone for any reason.

3.    Woeful Oversight

Since the enactment of the Privacy Act in 1983, every federal privacy commissioner has urged the government of the day to strengthen it. Those calls have grown louder over the past decade as PIPEDA places tougher obligations on the private sector than the government places on itself. The law as it currently stands has weak annual reporting requirements from government agencies, does not provide much protection to Canadians from abusive treatment by foreign states, does not give the Privacy Commissioner order-making power, does not provide redress in cases involving harm, does not prevent over-collection of personal information, does not protect against surveillance where the data is not recorded, and does not feature security breach disclosure requirements. The expansion on information sharing without addressing the oversight and safeguards of the Privacy Act should simply be a non-starter.


  1. As bad as the bill is, the “You’re either with us or with the terrorists” mantra of the Harper government may be even worse. This is the closest I’ve ever seen Canadian politics come to US-style Red baiting, post 9/11 fear mongering and dog whistle politics of the Republican Party.

    During Question Period, Ministers refuse to answer legitimate queries about the scope of the bill, and the Liberal Party’s decision to back this draconian legislation is abhorrent.

    Plus, there seems to be no institutional memory on the Hill. One of the main reasons CSIS came into being was because the RCMP abused the very kinds of power that C51 will grant to the entire secret state.

    Nothing good will come of this, and Canada is on the verge of losing its soul.

    • Brilliantly stated.

    • Trudeau’s support for this bill is sickening but not unsurprising considering he voted yes for Lawful access (which was originally a Liberal bill) and the Liberal Party in the 90′s and 00′s passed plenty of their own censorship and surveillance laws.

    • Totally agree. Please write me in the concentration camp that I will end up in for even thinking Harper has too go!

  2. “A person could be prosecuted for private statements, although again the prosecution would have to demonstrate that the person at the other side of a private conversation “may” commit a terrorism offence as a result of the private conversation.”

    Ok so let’s put it another way. Let’s say you go tell somebody to “go jump off a bridge”. Could you ever be charged for saying that to someone? No because of basic common sense.

    Now let’s say you make a statement (in either public or private) along the lines of “Fine, you’re always posting stuff about how you hate Harper. If you hate Harper that much why don’t you go blow up parliament.” Could you be charged under this law? Yes, because the bar for guilt here is the person you were talking “may” actually go and do it.

    In fact under this new law I could be charged for this very post because the Government could argue someone “may” read that last statement and actually go blow up Parliament and I am being negligent in not taking that into consideration.

    Disclaimer: The parliament building is very old and blowing it up will only cause more stupid laws, please don’t blow up Parliament.

    • Despite the protestations of Peter MacKay in Parliament today, the way the law is worded he could use any utterance against any governmental policy, regulation or law as the basis for a trumped up terrorism charge.

  3. What’s the point in having a voice if nobody (like Harper) ever listens, understands or learns?

    Just up folks, Canadian democracy is dead at this point. Unless we launch a non-violent revolution (like the Arab spring), nothing’s gonna change.

    • Sadly, a large number of Canadians do not see this government as being anything other than run of the mill corrupt and bring up 10 year old minor (in retrospect) sins such as adscam as examples that Harper’s not so bad. People are more into watching sports and the latest movies than keeping informed on the real life dramatic history that we are living in this country right now. The media is of very little help focusing on human tragedy, celebrity scandals or simply failing to provide background on major issues ensuring that the average guy does not understand what is going on. The only way we can fight this is long term through civics education in schools and fostering political engagement as a civic duty.

    • It’s not just Harper. The Liberals on on board with this too and they were responsible for plenty of their own backward laws after 9/11. They’ve also supported nearly all of Harper’s laws.

  4. What I find really terrifying is that, according to today’s Globe and Mail, an Angus Reid poll shows that 80% of Canadians are in favour of the bill.

    Our media are clearly letting us down as well.

    • It may as well have been a customer satisfaction survey for Rona. The 7 questions are so vague it reads like an ‘us against them’ opinion poll on terrorism in general. I think the outcome was inevitable. But I agree that the media needs to invest more effort into informing the public about any proposed changes that are as invasive and all empowering as this.

  5. Anonymous, where are you?

  6. Alot of people don’t realize but we know for a fact they have been doing this anonomously for over 20 years already. This whole Snowden revelations thing has been going on for well over 20 years. We used to work for the RCMP over 20 years ago and they told us things that they were doing as far as privacy goes that people think is all recent but it has been going on under the table for decades. It’s just on a larger scale now because of the expansion of technology. I’m 48 years old now and ever since I moved out on my own at age 15 they have been approaching me to work for them ever since. Follow the money.

  7. Alot of people don’t know but the government watches them in their homes without warrants also just looking for crime so they can get warrants or looking to set up people they don’t like for one reason or another. By expansion of technology I mean it is not just internet either. They are using radar. I don’t mean to repeat myself by this stuff is not new at all. It is old and illegal.
    We can detect it if they are in the opposite room from us. If you have a CRT television or a Nintendo DS and hold it about a foot from the wall about half the screen will get distorted and when you pull it away from the wall the screen will go back to normal. It gets a half circle distortion effect. They have used that on my wife and kids and I for over 5 years. I have sensitive skin and I would lay in bed and my family would tell me it looked as though I had a sun burn. When they started using it on my family and I in Windsor Ontario in 2008 we lived in a house without anyone on either side of us and we had a big CRT television 32″ and we would push it to the southern facing wall of our house towards the US Canada border and half of the screen would go distorted and when we moved it away from the wall it would go back to normal. It must of been coming from the US somewhere. My bedroom was on the south side of the house and when my wife and I would lay in bed I would get a sunburn at night and I would get severe headaches and my teeth would ache right down to the nerves. We didn’t know what it was at the time. After we were forced out of Windsor Ontario and into living in hotels they would get the rooms on either side of us and harass us all day and night. It went on for over 5 years. When we were in Windsor Ontario my wife and I would meet them at the bars and they would tell us everything that my wife and I were doing sexually in our bedroom. They would tell us every sexual position we did and they would tell us which ones they liked the best and they would tell us which ones they wanted to do with us. We had sex with some of them. When we got to B.C. and we were forced to live in hotel rooms they would focus the beam on our heads as we lay in bed and it would make our brains swell in our heads and cause severe headaches and you wouldn’t be able to think, it would make you very irritated and we would have to leave the hotel to get things done and they would come up to us on the streets and try to pick fights with us when we were disoriented from the radiation. Follow the money.

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  10. Keith McClary says:

    From Wikipedia:
    “Partly in response to the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, individual members of the ANC found it necessary to consider violence to combat what passive protest had failed to quell. A significant portion of ANC leadership and party as a whole therefore agreed that this violence was needed to combat increasing backlash from the government. Some ANC members were upset by the actions of MK, and refused to accept violence as necessary for the ending of apartheid, but these individuals became a minority as the militant leaders such as Nelson Mandela gained significant popularity.”
    If this act had been in force at that time, speaking in support of Mandela would be a crime.

    “(h) an activity that causes serious harm to a person or their property because of that person’s association with Canada; ”
    That could include a boycott of Canadian exports because of baby seals or tar sands.

    “(i) an activity that takes place in Canada and undermines the security of another state. For greater certainty, it does not include lawful advocacy, protest, dissent and artistic expression.”
    This seems to be aimed at boycott or disinvestment campaigns (eg., West Bank settlers). Is there a legal definition of “undermine”?

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  12. Howard Hughes says:

    This bill would empower the Federal government to aggressively pursue all those high net worth individuals hiding money offshore, but of course that won’t happen. It will just be used to crush the peasants more so than they already are.

    • Gabriel Levesque says:

      And don’t forget about copyright infringement lawsuits that will come from filesharing “compromising the economic stability of canada”…

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  14. anything, anywhere, for unlimited usage (politics) no oversight.
    blacklist, blackmail and eliminate opposition.
    plus the libs support it.

  15. Pingback: Three disastrous privacy consequences of Bill C-51 | Ecocide Alert

  16. … “to any person, for any purpose.”

    That’s about it, then.

  17. Alex Saquette says:

    If this bill is approved we will not be having this conversation without risking being questioned or arrested period . IT IS THAT BAD

  18. I give up.

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  20. The Canada Revenue Agency is included in the list. Time was when information on one’s tax return was not shareable with other departments. Keeping such information private was a cornerstone of a self-assessing tax system.

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  23. Faulty Intelligence, or…
    C-51 Con job?

    9 weirdest things about this RCMP intelligence report on the “anti-petroleum movement” – Who wrote the RCMP report and why?

  24. Pingback: A Collection of Resources Concerning Bill C-51- the "Anti-Terrorism Act" - Quirks & Quiddities

  25. Marion Vermeersch says:

    In 2003-4, I learned that citizenship was stripped from me and my brother, due to being children of a WWII Canadian soldier and his British War Bride, despite living here since 1946, paying taxes, serving Canada, voting, etc like any other Canadian citizens. In the years since, I have had many contacts with related government agencies and have been shocked to find minor details they have dug up about my family and used that information to continue to deny citizenship(i.e. my parents could not marry until shortly after my birth at the end of WWII due to Canadian government orders restricting military marriages).

    We are still without it, as are thousands of others. Even those who may qualify under C-24 may get it back, but only as dual citizens, vulnerable to revocation at the whim of some bureaucrat or politician. Canada has many people who may not know they could be eligible as dual citizens of somewhere and also part of this second-class citizenship.

    Therefore, I am very alarmed at the further prospect of this new legislation and its implications for those of us in this situation. What if, for instance, I should choose to take part in a peaceful protest, or advocate for causes such as responsible treatment of veterans through letters such as this?

    It is additionally disturbing that, I understand, a majority of Canadians are in favour of this legislation. For that reason, I do believe that there should be forums for public information and discussion before we throw away all the freedoms we thought our veterans fought for in the first place.

    • Keith McClary says:

      Canada must have millions of (second class) dual citizens from UK, Hong Kong, US and European countries. The numbers could be estimated from immigration statistics, but I have not been able to find this info on the web.

  26. (i) an activity that takes place in Canada and undermines the security of another state. For greater certainty, it does not include lawful advocacy, protest, dissent and artistic expression.

    Where’s the out for Canadian mining companies in that? Then again, Laws can always be broken by those with the ‘right’ political views or connections. John Kirakou, who exposed illegal torture, was jailed for his trouble, while leakers like David Petraeus are protected. Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning would be free if he had committed atrocities instead of exposing them, evidently. Bruce Livesay’s book, “Thieves Of Bay Street,” makes the point that Canadian banks are protected from serious examination by the RCMP because of their connections to politicians. Similarly, Prime Minister Harper is protected from serious examination by any agency due to his, and their, fear of and partnership with uncle Sam. Those imagining that Stephen Harper, who was cited by Peter Milliken for contempt of Parliament (a finding supported later by the Procedure Committee), is all about law and order should examine Yves Engler’s book titled “The Ugly Canadian.”

    Regarding Canada-based mining companies, still free to destroy ‘everywhere’ since our law and order-minded PM and other ‘honorable’ MPs killed off Bill C-300 (, consider the following:

    “Canadian mining corporations operate thousands of mining projects outside this country and many of these mines have displaced communities, destroyed ecosystems and provoked violence. Pick almost any country in the Global South – from Papua New Guinea to Ghana, Ecuador and the Philippines – and you will find a Canadian-run mine that has caused environmental devastation or been the scene of violent confrontations…

    “Under Harper all levels of Canadian diplomacy have promoted mining. Anthony Bebbington, director of the Graduate School of Geography at Clark University, told the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development in February 2012 that a “sub-secretary in a [Latin American] ministry of energy and mines” told him “as far as I can tell, the Canadian ambassador here is a representative for Canadian mining companies.” The Massachusetts-based academic also quoted an unnamed Latin American environment minister, who complained about Canadian lobbying and mining, saying: “I don’t know if Canada has been quite so discredited in its history.”” – from chapter 2 (“Mining The World”) of “The Ugly Canadian” by Yves Engler

    In this upside down world, and with ramped up police state laws like C-51, corporations working with governments will do much of the terrorism happening while those, including immediate, direct victims of it, will wear the (government’s) label of terrorist. It’s upside down. It’s perverse. It’s godless. But God, who they who would replace God, call by all their violence and perversity to “Bring it!,” has taken notice.

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  29. Eddie macdonald says:

    I am pretty sure that 80% percent for the passing of Bill-C-51 is totally fabricated as almost EVERYONE I have talked to in Canada is totally opposed to it. Once again cooperate media good for spreading propaganda for the state.

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