Surveillance: America's Pastime by Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: naixn, Jason Smith / (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Surveillance: America's Pastime by Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: naixn, Jason Smith / (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)


Why Has the Canadian Government Given Up on Protecting Our Privacy?

In recent years, it has become fashionable to argue that Canadians no longer care about their privacy. Supporters of this position note that millions of people voluntarily post personal information and photos about themselves on social media sites, are knowingly tracked by Internet advertising giants, and do not opt-out of “targeted” advertising from telecom companies. Yet if the past few months are any indication, it is not Canadians that have given up on privacy. It is the Canadian government.

My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes the public response to the tidal wave of stories regarding widespread surveillance, the 1.2 million government requests to telecom companies for customer information, and the growing number of security breaches suggest that many Canadians are deeply concerned about the protection of their privacy. However, many feel helpless in the face on recent revelations and wonder whether the government is prepared to tighten privacy rules and establish stronger oversight.

Unfortunately, the answer to that question is increasingly clear.  Not only has the government largely abandoned stronger privacy protections, but legislative proposals currently before Parliament seem certain to weaken the current legal framework even further.

For example, Bill C-13, the lawful access and cyberbullying bill, raises such serious privacy concerns that Carole Todd, the mother of cyberbullying victim Amanda, pointedly told Members of Parliament studying the bill that “we should not have to choose between our privacy and our safety.”

Much like the government’s divisive approach to the last lawful access bill (in which then-Public Safety Minister Vic Toews infamously stated that people could stand with the government or with child pornographers), Justice Minister Peter McKay is again forcing Canadians to choose.

The latest bill grants telecom companies and other organizations legal immunity for the voluntary disclosure of their customers’ personal information. Law enforcement officials have confirmed that this goes well beyond basic subscriber information and may include transmission and tracking data.

The bill also establishes a low threshold for warrants to access metadata, which numerous experts confirm may reveal private and sensitive information. Despite the concerns, no Canadian privacy commissioner will appear before the committee study the bill and groups such as the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association have been similarly excluded (I appeared before the committee last Thursday).

The situation is similarly grim with respect to Bill S-4, the Digital Privacy Act that is currently winding its way through the Senate. That bill expands the scope of voluntary warrantless disclosures of personal information by allowing for such disclosures to any organization, not just law enforcement.

Moreover, the law does not require telecom providers to notify customers of these disclosures, meaning that hundreds of thousands of Canadians remain in the dark when their information is voluntarily handed over to officials.  In fact, telecom companies have thus far rejected calls for greater transparency on their disclosure practices, pointing to government rules that they claim prohibit them from opening up.

The government’s decision to weaken privacy protection also extends to its unwillingness to rein in surveillance activities. While the U.S. has begun to reconsider its approach and to establish more effective oversight mechanisms, the state of Canadian surveillance remains shrouded in secrecy.  Repeated revelations about Canadian involvement in global surveillance programs, including programs that have involved domestic interceptions, have been met with a collective shrug from elected officials.

As if to emphasize the point, last week the government named a senior Justice lawyer for the Canadian surveillance agencies as the new Privacy Commissioner of Canada. While past performance does not guarantee future policies (Chantal Bernier, Canada’s interim Privacy Commissioner, came to the office from Public Safety), the decision to pass over several well-qualified privacy experts with commissioner experience sends an unmistakable message about the government’s general view of privacy.

The bleak state of Canadian privacy is difficult to reconcile with a government that has prioritized a consumer perspective on telecom, broadcast, and banking issues. Further, conservative government policies are often consistent with civil libertarian views that abhor public intrusion into the private lives of its citizens.

But with Ottawa showing no signs of backtracking on its privacy reforms, Canadians can be forgiven for wondering how its government became so hostile towards their privacy at the very time that they woke up to the importance of the issue.


  1. The hostility was in place long before we “woke up”, it seems. No?

  2. Stalking, as in “stalking one’s prey”
    A biologist commented that some people have a visceral reaction to stalking behaviour, because it makes them feel like *prey*.

    Conversely, for the stalker, it can produce a feeling of hidden power, as it makes them feel like a predator.

    The latter can lead to all sorts of creepy behaviour by the stalker, which they may not be aware of, or credit when they’re told they’re doing it. “After all, I’m stalking you because you might be a criminal. How dare you object!”

    Nevertheless, the spies and their masters need to wake up and think about the down-side of their behaviours.

    Having a government looking at their citizens as prey is something that belongs in a tin-pot dictatorship or the old Soviet Union, not Canada.

  3. Bandersnatch says:

    Canadian gov’t cares deeply about privacy…
    and how they can get around it. Seriously, considering we’re a major part of the NSA’s “Five Eyes” old boys club, should any of us be surprised that the government actively works to lower the privacy expectations & protections of Canadians? As a nation, our government has kept a very low profile while the Snowden revelations were taking up all the headlines. If you don’t already think that Canada is hip-deep in illegal surveillance just like the USA, you’re woefully naive.

  4. “Further, conservative government policies are often consistent with civil libertarian views that abhor public intrusion into the private lives of its citizens. ”

    Typically, yes; like their action on the long form census. However, the current federal government is not consistent with normal conservatism.

  5. Because Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely
    “Don’t ask for your privacy. Take it back.” reads the slogan for the campaign set to run on Thursday. Surveillance is a vulnerability to be patched in order to regain the privacy that we always expected.

    Otherwise, we allow mere mortals to hold absolute power unchecked over others. There are no checks-and-balances solutions possible here. Surveillance powers must be removed. Encryption must make surveillance impossible. Download the Privacy Pack from now!

  6. Brazilian PKI
    Meanwhile, Brazil has abandoned NSA’s suite B PKI cryptographic system: (in Brazilian Portuguese). Finally some good news from here. Best!

  7. end user says:

    Well the authorities need new job creation and money rackets. With Cannabis legalization this will cut off a lot of funding for the authorities so they need more boogie man crimes to replace reefer madness.

    I’d be ok with some spying if politicians let us hook up cameras to them during work hours. Wanna see what we are doing, so do we….

  8. Canadians WANT to be Led
    I’m practically OCD at the CBC’s commenting forums for articles. There is a split along generational lines. The up-and-comers don’t want to think…. they want entitlements and if that means sacrificing everything, privacy the least of it, so be it!
    You and I and most commenters here are “malcontents”.

  9. Not-Gregg says:

    No they don’t
    They want to be cared for, not dictated to. I should know – I’m one of them youth.

  10. Not-Gregg
    “Cared for” is for the terminally ill. What’s wrong with your generation?