Lawful Access: Public Safety Canada Argues It Needs New Spy Powers If Foreign Ownership Of Telecoms Allowed

The Huffington Post Canada  |  By Posted: 04/23/2012 4:21 pm Updated: 04/23/2012 4:21 pm

Canadians’ desire for greater competition in the wireless market means the government will need expanded surveillance powers, a letter from Public Safety Canada argues.

The confidential letter, obtained last week by Bloomberg News, links the government’s plan to open up the wireless market to foreign companies with the need for a large-scale expansion of government surveillance powers.

The letter suggested that allowing greater foreign ownership of wireless companies, as well as a larger number of wireless carriers, “would pose a considerable risk to public safety and national security” unless mitigating measures are put into place.

Digital law expert Michael Geist points out in a blog post Monday that those mitigating measures appear to be Bill C-30 -- the controversial proposal to expand government surveillance powers, commonly known as the “online spying” or “lawful access” bill.


“Today, with a limited number of companies and all with Canadian ownership, authorities and service providers often work together to develop and implement network solutions to support investigative requirements,” the Public Safety Department wrote in the letter, which was obtained under a Freedom of Information request.

“With market diversification and an increased number of service providers, the need for legislation requiring intercept-capable networks becomes paramount,” the letter continues.

The letter then references Bill C-52, the predecessor in the last Parliament to the current online spying bill.

“Through Bill C-52, the Investigating and Preventing Criminal Electronic Communications Act, the Government is pursuing legislation that will help keep Canadians safe by equipping the police and national security agencies with the tools they need to combat crime and terrorism in the digital age. This legislation would help mitigate against possible threats from hostile foreign entities that would seek to exploit possible future relaxation of the foreign ownership restrictions in the telecommunications market,” the letter continues.

Geist predicts on his blog that this will become a “likely line of argument” for Public Safety Canada when the proposed surveillance law comes before Parliament once again.

The Conservative government unveiled its latest version of the online spying law in February, only to face an almost instant public backlash when Public Safety Minister Vic Toews accused those who opposed the bill of siding “with the child pornographers.”

The bill has since been sent to committee for consultation, and may return to Parliament in a very different form. However, recent reports suggest the changes being proposed would only expand spying powers, rather than restrict them.

Polls have shown that Canadians are largely unreceptive to plans to expand government digital surveillance.

The Public Safety letter was the department’s submission to Industry Canada on a consultation about the government’s auction of the 700-megahertz bandwidth, and proposals to allow more foreign ownership of wireless carriers.

In an effort to spur greater competition in cellphone service, the government recently loosened the formula on foreign ownership. While previously wireless carriers could not be more than 46.7 per cent foreign owned, the new rules allow an unlimited amount of foreign ownership if the telecom in question has less than 10 per cent market share. (The large telecoms control more than 90 per cent of Canada’s market).

Though foreign ownership of telecom companies is a common phenomenon in most developed countries these days, Public Safety Canada insisted in its letter that allowing foreign-owned entrants would jeopardize national security.

“An increasing number of new service providers operating in Canada, as well as the continuous rapid roll-out of increasingly complex, new and possibly untrusted technologies can create challenges for law enforcement and national security agencies in their ability to carry out lawful investigations,” the letter stated.


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  • What's In Online-Snooping Bill

    Like similar legislation introduced in the past by both Conservative and Liberal governments, the new bill includes provisions that would: <em>With files from CBC</em> (Shutterstock)

  • Warantless Online Info

    Require telecommunications and internet providers to give subscriber data to police, national security agencies and the Competition Bureau without a warrant, including names, phone numbers and IP addresses. (CP)

  • Back Door Access

    Force internet providers and other makers of technology to provide a "back door" to make communications accessible to police. (Getty)

  • Location, Location, Location

    Allow police to get warrants to obtain information transmitted over the internet and data related to its transmission, including locations of individuals and transactions. (Alamy)

  • Preserve Data

    Allow courts to compel other parties to preserve electronic evidence. (Alamy)

  • New Bill Is Different

    However, unlike the most recent previous version of the bill, the new legislation: (Alamy)

  • Less Data

    Requires telecommunications providers to disclose, without a warrant, just six types of identifiers from subscriber data instead of 11. (Alamy)

  • Oversight

    Provides for an internal audit of warrantless requests that will go to a government minister and oversight review body. Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews is pictured. (CP)

  • Review After 5 Years

    Includes a provision for a review after five years. (Alamy)

  • More Time To Implement

    Allows telecommunications service providers to take 18 months instead of 12 months to buy equipment that would allow police to intercept communications. (Alamy)

  • Expanded Definitions

    Changes the definition of hate propaganda to include communication targeting sex, age and gender. (Alamy)