Feds push for greater access to private info
CTV.ca News Staff
Privacy watchdogs are crying foul over an attempt by the Public Safety Canada to come up with legislation that will force telecommunications providers to cough up personal information about their clients to authorities.
A consultation document obtained by CTV News reveals the government is planning to hold talks to "address the challenges faced by police, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the Competition Bureau when seeking timely access to basic Customer Name Address (CNA) information."
Due to a current lack of legislation, the document states, some telecommunications companies choose to provide customer information to police when it is requested, while others demand a court order before releasing any information at all.
The Public Safety Department hopes to establish new legislation to ensure police are granted the information on demand. That worries some privacy advocates.
"I was really troubled when I first read the document, in large part because it's a consultation with a limited number of choices," Michael Geist, Canada Research Chair of Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, told CTV News.
"It's clear that Public Safety has the expectation that all Internet service providers and telecommunications companies will be required to hand over personal information without court oversight, simply because they're asked to provide it."
According to the document, the government hopes to gain access to customers' names, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, IP addresses and cellphone data, saying it is often vital to a police investigation.
"The availability of such building-block information is often the difference between the start and finish of an investigation," the document says.
A series of safeguards are proposed in the document, including limits on who would have access to the information, limiting how it is used, and internal audits on the use of the powers it hopes to legislate.
But Geist said the current system is working fine, and there's no evidence that police actually need greater access to such information without having to go through the courts to get it.
"We've been living in an online environment for a number of years, close to a decade, and there's been scant evidence to suggest the current system, whereby law enforcement does have to obtain in most instances a court order, has really created any problems from an investigative perspective."
Philippa Lawson, of the Canadian Internet Public Policy Interest Centre, agrees the status quo is serving police well.
"We know from history that the more powers you give law enforcement agencies and the government, the most potential there is for abuse," she said.
Geist said that a customer's name and address can serve as a "lynchpin" for other personal data. For example, if police can link an IP address to a specific person, they suddenly gain the ability to track their activity on the Internet.
"From an individual Canadian's perspective, their privacy and their concerns about how that information could be used and conceivably misused, suggests that it's important to ensure we do have some oversights in place," Geist said.
The consultation document obtained by CTV states that two previous "broader" consultations were done on the same topic in 2002 and 2005.
The stakeholders asked to participate in the coming talks will include police, industry representatives, and "groups interested in privacy and victims of crime issues."
Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day was not available for an interview. However, after CTV News made inquiries about the consultation, his office said the document would be posted online and Canadians would have the chance to weigh in on the process.
With a report from CTV News Parliamentary Correspondent David Akin