Need a warrant to unmask Internet users? Not if Canada gets its way

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When Canada's Conservatives took the most votes in the May 2011 federal election, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said that an "omnibus" security/crime bill would be introduced within 100 days. The bill would wrap up a whole host of ideas that were previously introduced as separate bills - and make individual ideas much more difficult to debate. A key part of the omnibus bill will apparently be "lawful access" rules giving police greater access to ISP and geolocation data - often without a warrant - and privacy advocates and liberals are up in arms.

Writing yesterday in The Globe & Mail, columnist Lawrence Martin said that the bill "will compel Internet service providers to disclose customer information to authorities without a court order. In other words - blunter words - law enforcement agencies will have a freer hand in spying on the private lives of Canadians."

He quotes former Conservative public safety minister Stockwell Day, now retired, as swearing off warrantless access. "We are not in any way, shape or form wanting extra powers for police to pursue [information online] without warrants," Day said - but there's a new Conservative sheriff in town, and he wants his "lawful access."

Bill C-52

The move to get it came during the last session of Parliament, when bill C-52 (the "Investigating and Preventing Criminal Electronic Communications Act") was introduced but not passed.

C-52 requires all telecommunications company to provide to law enforcement "any information in the service provider's possession or control respecting the name, address, telephone number, and electronic mail address of any subscriber to any of the service provider's telecommunications services and the Internet protocol address, mobile identification number, electronic serial number, local service provider identifier, international mobile equipment identity number, international mobile subscriber identity number and subscriber identity module card [SIM card] number that are associated with the subscriber's service and equipment."

"It is not difficult to put in place workable oversight regimes"

To get that information, law enforcement won't necessarily need a warrant. Each agency can designate up to 5 percent of its total employees as authorized to request the information, and it can ban telcos from admitting that they have provided any such information. Bill C-52 looks to be a key part of the upcoming "omnibus" bill that will include a host of other security-related material.

Even the government's own Privacy Commissioner is upset about the lawful access idea. On March 9, Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart sent a letter to Public Safety Canada in which she and other provincial privacy officials said the bill would "give authorities access to a wide scope of personal information without a warrant; for example, unlisted numbers, e-mail account data and IP addresses. The Government itself took the view that this information was sensitive enough to make trafficking in such 'identity information' a Criminal Code offence. Many Canadians consider this information sensitive and worthy of protection, which does not fit with the proposed self-authorized access model."

"In our view, law enforcement and security agency access to information linking subscribers to devices and devices to subscribers should generally be subject to prior judicial scrutiny accompanied by the appropriate checks and balances."

In their view, the new powers have "insufficient justification" and "less intrusive alternatives can be explored."

Canadian academics and digital rights advocates echoed the complaint. On August 9, they sent a letter (PDF) to Prime Minister Harper saying that C-52 would allow "law enforcement to force identification of anonymous online Internet users, even where there is no reason to suspect the information will be useful to any investigation and without adequate court oversight."

They demanded an "appropriate hearing" for lawful access, given the importance of the issue, and argued that this simply couldn't happen if it is rolled into the expected omnibus bill. Such investigative powers aren't necessarily improper, but they need to be kept within strict limits. "International examples also demonstrate that it is not difficult to put in place workable oversight regimes that do nothing to impede the ability of law enforcement to conduct their legitimate duties," said the letter. "Yet the latest iteration of the lawful access legislation makes no attempt to enact such a regime."

The omnibus legislation is expected soon.

Originally published here

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