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Canada weak link in global terror communications
April 27, 2004
OTTAWA - A senior FBI official says Canada needs to follow countries such as the U.S. in moving toward stricter Internet and cellphone wiretapping laws, or become a "weak link" in what has become a global war on terrorist communications.
Mike Kirkpatrick, assistant director in charge of the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division, said in an interview with CanWest News Service that it would be "desirable" for Canada to give police and spy agencies legal authority to tap citizen's private e-mail and Internet-driven phone calls, and to facilitate the process by compelling cellphone and Internet service providers to make their equipment easier to tap.
"Canada is a very strong partner of the United States, and vice versa. I think it's desirable that we can get as many places as possible to adopt it," said Kirkpatrick, referring to a controversial proposal by the FBI and U.S. Justice Department that would enforce similar strict provisions in the U.S.
"You're only as strong as your weakest link, so if you have places that don't adopt (such measures) then that's a weak link." Kirkpatrick was in Ottawa Monday and Tuesday to speak at an international conference on cyber security and law enforcement.
The need is urgent in both countries to update so-called "lawful access" laws so security forces can deal effectively with an explosion of Internet and cellphone telecommunications, and in particular Internet phone traffic, known as voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), explained Kirkpatrick.
The FBI and U.S. State Department have argued that companies offering telephone service over the Internet are increasingly popular with terrorists, who believe those transmissions are more technically difficult to tap, and who benefit from outdated wiretapping laws that don't apply to Internet calls.
Last week, representatives from the U.S. Justice Department, the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration provoked a swift, negative response from privacy advocates and VoIP entrepreneurs after they asked a Federal Communications Commission panel to extend the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act of 1994 to Internet service providers.
That law requires telephone companies and equipment providers to configure their networks so that phone conversations are easier to tap. Other legislation enacted since the terrorist attacks of Sept.11, 2001, allows circuit-switched and cellphone conversations to be tapped without a warrant under certain circumstances.
Canadian law, meanwhile, doesn't go nearly as far. Right now, CSIS, the RCMP and local police rely on a patchwork of laws - including the Criminal Code, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act and the Competition Act - for powers to intercept communications, and to search and seize information.
Security forces can only tap communications with a warrant under limited circumstances that make it difficult to quickly and effectively track down criminals. And traditional wire-line phone services, cellphone service providers and Internet providers aren't compelled to design systems that are technically easy to tap.
If the U.S. Justice Department and FBI prevail, Internet service providers and others won't just be forced to make their equipment easy to tap. A petition sent to regulators last week, and signed by Deputy Assistant Attorney General John G. Malcolm and others from the FBI and the DEA, would force VoIP entrepreneurs to seek approval from federal regulators before they could open for business or expand.
VoIP entrepreneurs have responded that it's unfair to lump VoIP, cellphone instant messages, e-mail and Blackberry communications together with traditional circuit-switched calls, arguing the former are computer, not phone, services. They add that forcing companies to publicly reveal their business plans to federal bureaucrats would give competitors in other nations, including Canada and Europe, an unfair advantage.
A spokesman for Margaret Bloodworth, deputy minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, refused to comment Monday on the status of previously announced plans to stiffen Canadian wiretap laws.
And a spokeswoman for Anne McLellan said the revamping of "lawful access" provisions were "in no way shape or form covered" under a sweeping, multi-million-dollar National Security Plan unveiled by the minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Tuesday.
"That's moving on a separate track," said Farah Mohamed, the minister's director of communications.
But a proposal released with little fanfare by the federal government in October 2002 would compel telephone, wireless and Internet service providers to open every form of telecommunications traffic - described as a "basic intercept capability" - to officers who present a court order for the information.
Internet providers, cell and wire-line telephone companies under the controversial proposal would have to keep tabs on suspects identified by warrant, and any legally obtained information could potentially be fed to security forces internationally.
Privacy advocacy organizations, including the federal privacy commissioner, have panned the proposal as a draconian invasion of privacy; while Internet service providers and cellphone service providers are concerned about the potentially multi-million-dollar cost of retrofitting their systems.
The FBI's Kirkpatrick noted that if the U.S. becomes the only jurisdiction with exceedingly strict wiretapping laws, terrorists could gravitate to Canada and elsewhere in order to speed their covert messages through. "
So it's an issue for the whole world. The whole free world, the whole freedom-loving world needs to stand shoulder to shoulder on this kind of issue so that you don't have these free havens where people can operate pretty much with impunity."
© CanWest News Service 2004
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