The Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs began its hearings on Bill C-13, the lawful access/cyberbullying bill last week with an appearance from several law enforcement representatives. The Ontario Provincial Police was part of the law enforcement panel and was asked by Senator Tom McInnis, a Conservative Senator from Nova Scotia, about what other laws are needed to address cyberbullying. Scott Naylor of the OPP responded (official transcript not yet posted online):
If the bag was open and I could do anything, the biggest problem that I see in the world of child sexual exploitation is anonymity on the Internet. When we get our driver’s licence we’re required to get our picture taken for identification. When you get a mortgage you have to sign and provide identification. When you sign up for the Internet, there is absolutely no requirement for any kind of non-anonymity qualifier. There are a lot of people who are hiding behind the Internet to do all kinds of crime, including cybercrime, fraud, sexual exploitation and things along those lines.
The Internet is moving so quickly that law enforcement cannot keep up. If there were one thing that I would ask for discussion on is that there has to be some mechanism of accountability for you to sign on to an Internet account that makes it like a digital fingerprint that identifies it to you sitting behind the computer or something at that time. There are mechanisms to do it, but the Internet is so big and so vast at this point, and it’s worldwide, I’m not sure how that could happen, but that would certainly assist everybody. In that way I can make a digital qualification that that’s the person that I’m talking to. If I had one choice, that’s what I would ask for.
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In a year in which privacy issues have captured near weekly headlines, one concern stands out: warrantless access to Internet and telecom subscriber information. From revelations that telecom companies receive over a million requests each year to the Supreme Court of Canada’s landmark decision affirming that there is a reasonable expectation of privacy in subscriber information, longstanding law enforcement and telecom company practices have been placed under the microscope for the first time.
Last week, the Privacy Commissioner of Canada released a report that shed further light on the law enforcement side of warrantless disclosure requests, raising disturbing questions about the lack of record keeping and politically motivated efforts to drum up data on the issue.
My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes that the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada notified the Royal Canadian Mounted Police last October that it was planning to conduct preliminary investigative work on the collection of warrantless subscriber information from telecom companies. The plan was to assess RCMP policies and to determine the frequency and justification for warrantless requests.
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In the aftermath of the Supreme Court of Canada’s Spencer decision, I argued that the decision upholding the reasonable expectation of privacy in subscriber information contradicted the government’s claims supporting Bills C-13 and S-4, leaving the government’s lawful access strategy in tatters. I noted that it faced a choice:
The Canadian government could adopt the “bury our heads in the sand approach” by leaving the provision unchanged, knowing that it will be unused or subject to challenge. That would run counter to the spirit of the Supreme Court ruling, however, and do nothing to assist law enforcement.
Yesterday, the government did just that, as Bill C-13 passed another legislative hurdle with the reported committee version of the bill was approved by the House. During the debate, the government insisted that the legislation is consistent with the Spencer decision. While it is true that the voluntary warrantless disclosure provision does not directly contradict the Spencer decision, the reality is that it has been rendered largely moot. In other words, the government is touting a legislative solution to assist law enforcement that the police will not use and that telecom companies will ignore.
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One day after NDP MP Charmaine Borg received a government response to her request for more data on subscriber requests and disclosures, Liberal MP Irwin Cotler received a response to his request for information. While there is some overlap between the documents, Cotler asked some important specific questions about the number of requests, which providers face requests, and the results of the information disclosed. Departments such as CSIS and CSEC unsurprisingly declined to provide much information, but several other departments were more forthcoming.
The results paint a disturbing picture: massive numbers of requests often with little or no record keeping, evidence to suggest that the disclosures frequently do not lead to charges, requests that extend far beyond telecom providers to include online dating and children’s gaming sites, and inconsistent application of the Supreme Court of Canada’s recent Spencer decision.
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Earlier this year, reports indicated that the Canadian Border Services Agency had requested subscriber information over 18,000 times in a single year, with the vast majority of the requests and disclosures occuring without a warrant. The information came to light through NDP MP Charmaine Borg’s efforts to obtain information on government agencies requests for subscriber data. Borg followed up the initial request with a more detailed list of questions and earlier this week she receive the government’s response.
The latest response confirms the earlier numbers and sheds more light on CBSA practices. First, the CBSA confirms that requests for subscriber information are conducted without a court order by relying upon Section 43 of the Customs Act. It provides:
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