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Lawful Access Bill Would Have Allowed NSA-Style Spying In Canada: Geist

08/06/2013 05:09 EDT | Updated 08/06/2013 05:09 EDT
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A controversial bill that would have given the federal government greater power to track Canadians online included a provision that would have allowed for an NSA-style surveillance system, says a prominent digital law professor.

University of Ottawa professor Michael Geist says a provision in Bill C-30 would have given carte blanche to government agencies to install whatever monitoring equipment they want on telecom service providers’ networks.

The Harper government withdrew Bill C-30 (known as the “Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act”) earlier this year, after public concerns the bill would allow the government to surveil Canadians without a warrant online, but many political observers say the government is already sowing the seeds for a similar new bill to come.

In a recent blog post, Geist noted that section 14(4) of Bill C-30 would have given the government the power to “provide [a] telecommunications service provider with any equipment ... that the Minister considers the service provider needs to comply” with government requests under the new law.

That provision would have given the government the power to decide what specific surveillance equipment must be installed on private ISP and telecom networks by allowing it to simply take over the ISP or telecom network and install its own equipment,” Geist wrote.

He said the bill would have given the federal government “similar legal powers” to those enjoyed by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), whose own programs for warrantless tracking of social media activity and collection of millions of email records daily were recently exposed in a series of articles in the Guardian.

According to an article in Buzzfeed published last month, the NSA has the capability to install tracking equipment inside the offices of telecom providers, and force the providers to stay silent about it.

Geist had previously suggested that the Canadian government already has the capability to carry out NSA-style surveillance on Canadians.

The Harper government's “lawful access” legislation died a quiet death this spring, after many people reacted negatively to then-Public Security Minister Vic Toews’ assertion that an opposition MP can “either stand with us or with the child pornographers" on the bill.

But as Geist and others point out, the bill, or something similar, may not be gone for good. Efforts to expand law enforcement’s access to Canadians’ online habits have been under proposal in one form or another since the 1990s, and the latest efforts appear to be shifting the focus away from catching child pornographers to stopping cyber-bullying.

A report on cyber-bullying issued by the federal Department of Justice last month “strongly recommends” a number of new legal provisions that would echo the old Bill C-30, or other similar legislation in other countries. Among the recommendations was the creation of a “preservation order” that would force Internet providers to keep a log for some mandated amount of time of all subscribers’ internet use.

Another recommendation would see the government get enhanced powers to demand electronic communications from telecoms, as well as new powers to track communications online.

“Many of these powers were addressed in the lawful access bill and may be making a comeback in legislation this fall,” Geist wrote on his blog.

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