Canadian telecom company privacy practices were back in the spotlight this month with the release of a transparency report from Rogers Communications. The report provides new insights into how much – or how little – Canadians know about when their personal information is disclosed to government agencies.
For Rogers customers, the good news is that recent changes in the law, including court decisions that set limits on the disclosure of mass data from cellphone towers and that protect Internet subscriber information – are having a significant effect. Law enforcement agencies are still able to obtain data on hundreds of thousands of people, but warrantless access to basic subscriber information has stopped.
My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes that the latest Rogers report is the first from the company since the release in 2015 of telecom transparency guidelines that garnered support from the federal privacy commissioner, Industry Canada, and the telecom sector. The guidelines attempt to provide a common framework for disclosure so that the public will be better able to compare privacy protections and policies among Canada’s major telecom companies.
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Canadians have become increasingly troubled by reports revealing that telecom and Internet companies receive millions of requests for subscriber data from a wide range of government departments. In light of public concern, some Internet and telecom companies have begun to issue regular transparency reports that feature aggregate data on the number of requests they receive and the disclosures they make.
The transparency reports from companies such as Rogers, Telus, and TekSavvy have helped shed light on government demands for information and on corporate disclosure practices. However, they also paint an incomplete picture since companies have offered up inconsistent data and some of the largest, including Bell, have thus far refused to come clean on past requests and disclosures.
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Canada’s business community has mobilized in recent weeks to call on the government to adopt a more aggressive, engaged approach with respect to the biggest trade negotiations on the planet – the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement. The TPP involves 12 countries including the United States, Australia, Mexico, Malaysia, Singapore, New Zealand, Vietnam, Brunei, Japan, Peru, and Chile.
My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes that negotiators insist that progress is being made, but some in the business community are concerned that Canada may be left out of the deal unless it makes significant concessions on market access (including the dismantling of supply management in several agricultural sectors), restrictive intellectual property protections, and investor-state dispute settlement rules that allow companies to sue governments and potentially trump national courts.
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Rogers surprised many yesterday by becoming the first major Canadian telecom provider to release a transparency report (TekSavvy, a leading independent ISP beat them by a few hours in issuing a very detailed report on its policies and activities). The company was rightly lauded for releasing the report, which seems likely to end the silence among all Canadian telecom companies. Telus now says it is working on a transparency report for release this summer and it is reasonable to guess that others will follow.
Much of the focus on the report came from its big number: nearly 175,000 requests for subscriber information last year. Yet requests for information is only part of the story. The report only contained data on requests for information with no numbers on how many times the company disclosed the information to the authorities upon request. The reason for the omission is shocking admission: Rogers says it has not tracked when it discloses subscriber information in response to these requests. When asked how often authorities’ requests were granted, the company stated:
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