Canada's Telecoms Have Built Databases For Police Spying: Geist

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Canada’s telecoms appear to be building databases of subscriber information that law enforcement agencies can access without a warrant, according to documents released under access to information laws. | Martin Barraud via Getty Images

Canada’s telecoms appear to be building databases of subscriber information that law enforcement agencies can access without a warrant, according to documents released under access to information laws.

The news comes as Parliament once again gears up to debate the merits of giving police greater access to telecom subscriber data.

The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) accessed telecom subscriber data 18,849 times in a one-year period, from April 2012 to March 2013, according to documents provided to NDP MP Charmaine Borg.

And those aren’t all the data requests from the federal government — that’s just one agency, the CBSA.

Of all those requests, CBSA got a warrant in only 52 cases, the documents show, meaning that in 18,797 cases there was no warrant. The telecoms handed over the data for all but 25 requests, and most of the rejections were due to phones not being active or customers leaving the company, the Halifax Chronicle-Herald reports.

Other agencies made requests but CBSA had the largest number.

For warrantless requests, telecoms handed over basic subscriber information. Where there were warrants, the data handed over was more detailed, including the actual content of voice mails and text messages, the Chronicle-Herald reports.

According to digital law professor Michael Geist, the documents indicate the major telecoms have established their own law enforcement databases. In one document, the Competition Bureau declares it had accessed “the Bell Canada Law Enforcement database” 20 times in a one-year period.

It is not clear what oversight or review is used before a government agency may access the Bell database,” Geist commented.

Privacy expert David Fraser, a Halifax lawyer, says he finds the phenomenon “shocking.”

If you cannot convince a judge or a justice of the peace or a magistrate that you are entitled to that information, then you should not be getting that information,” Fraser told the Chronicle-Herald.

The law as it stands allows telecoms to hand over voluntarily the personal information of subscribers without a warrant (and without notifying the subscriber) when there is a law enforcement investigation.

But if the Harper government has its way, it will soon be even easier for telecoms to do so.

Bill C-13, the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act, is headed for second reading in Parliament. Originally sold by the Tories as a bill to combat cyberbullying, it’s been pilloried by critics for bringing back elements of the failed 2012 online spying bill.

The new bill doesn’t include some of the more contentious elements of the old bill, such as mandatory warrantless disclosure of subscriber data. But critics point out the bill grants immunity to telecoms who share data with law enforcement without a warrant, making it all the easier for telecoms to hand over information.

The bill “will allow authorities access to the private lives of millions of law-abiding Canadians, even if they’re not suspected of wrong-doing,” digital rights group OpenMedia said in a statement earlier this month.

Justice Minister Peter MacKay says the bill will not erode internet privacy rights, and telecom companies will only be granted immunity if their disclosure of subscriber data complies with the law.

But Geist and others have accused MacKay of misleading the public by suggesting these disclosures would always involve a warrant, which is not the case. Telecom companies already have the right under the law to disclose subscriber data to authorities without a warrant.

With earlier reporting

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