Canadians concerned about their online privacy have a new way to find out whether their telecom provider is collecting information about them — and sharing it with third parties like government entities.
The new tool, developed by some of the country's top privacy experts, makes it easier for Canadians to force their provider to disclose their practices.
"What we're trying to do as researchers is identify what kind of data telecommunications companies in Canada collect, obtain, and process, and disclose to third parties," said Dr. Christopher Parsons, a fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs' Citizen Lab.
"But we also wanted to make it easier for Canadians individually to engage in the same sort of action."
Known as "Access My Info," the web tool helps create a formal letter which, under Canadian privacy law, telecom companies are legally obliged to respond to within 30 days, the website offering the tool says.
Canadians requesting the information fill out a few basic details about themselves and their telecom provider, and can do so confidentially, the website says.
The project comes amid growing questions about how much privacy Canadians have online.
Steve Anderson, executive director of OpenMedia.ca, an organization that promotes an open Internet and digital rights, said the process of data collection and sharing by telecoms remains shrouded in secrecy.
"We don't know a whole lot, but what we do know is quite alarming," he said.
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According to documents given to Privacy Commissioner Chantal Bernier, the federal government asks telecom for data on subscribers 1.2 million times a year. That’s one request for every 30 Canadians, every year. Most of those requests don’t involve a warrant, and in 2011 telecoms complied with at least 784,000 of those requests.
The federal government spent more than $50 million buying high-security communications technology from the U.S. National Security Agency, according to data unearthed by Vice magazine. There have been at least 73 contracts for telecommunications equipment procured through the NSA over the past decade.
According to documents given to NDP MP Charmaine Borg under an access to information request, some telecoms are building databases of customer information specifically for police use. A Competition Bureau document noted the bureau had "accessed the Bell Canada Law Enforcement Database" 20 times in 2012-2013.
At least one Canadian telecom is evidently giving the government unrestricted access to communications on its network, according to documents from Canada’s privacy commissioner. The unnamed telecom says the government has the ability to copy the traffic on its communications network, then mine the copied data to determine what sort it is.
Critics say Bill C-13, the “anti-cyberbullying bill” the Harper government is promoting, is essentially a back-door for a host of measures that would allow greater government intrusion into private lives. The bill would provide legal immunity to telecoms that hand over customer data without a warrant, and would lower the standard under which police can get warrantless data. Digital rights group OpenMedia says the bill “would let ... authorities create detailed profiles of Canadians based on who they talk to and what they say and do online.” Pictured: Justice Minister Peter MacKay
Industry Minister James Moore's Digital Privacy Act is being billed as “protection for Canadians when they surf the web and shop online,” but critics say it amounts to a wholesale threat to the privacy rights it ostensibly aims to enshrine. Bill S-4 would allow internet service providers to share customer data with any organization that is investigating a possible breach of contract, such as a copyright violation, or illegal activity. Thus, private corporations, and not just the government, could obtain personal information about you. The bill would also eliminate court oversight of file-sharing lawsuits, which critics fear would lead to the sort of “copyright trolling” seen in the U.S.
An estimated 90 per cent of Canadian Internet traffic moves through the U.S., which means that Canadians are being caught up in the NSA’s surveillance dragnet, experts say. Data passes through “filters and checkpoints” and is “shared with third parties, with law enforcement and of course intelligence agencies that operate in the shadows,” says Ronald Deibert, head of the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab.
Documents obtained by the Globe and Mail and The Canadian Press suggest that Canada is engaged in mass warrantless surveillance. The documents show then-Defence Minister Peter MacKay signed a ministerial directive in November, 2011, authorizing the re-start of “a secret electronic eavesdropping program that scours global telephone records and Internet data trails – including those of Canadians – for patterns of suspicious activity.”
Canada’s electronic spy agency, CSEC, will see its budget skyrocket to $829 million in 2014-15, from $444 million this year. Pictured: CSEC's new $1.2-billion headquarters in Ottawa, currently under construction.
According to journalist Glenn Greenwald’s book “No Place To Hide,” Canada took some $300,000 to $400,000 from the NSA in 2012 to develop surveillance capabilities. However, that money amounts to a drop in the bucket given CSEC’s $829 million budget for electronic surveillance. Pictured: Glenn Greenwald
The CSEC was in charge of developing an international standard for encryption keys to transmit data securely. But according to documents obtained by the New York Times, CSEC handed over control of the standard to the NSA, allowing the U.S. surveillance agency to build back-doors that allowed it to crack the encryptions. As a result, the NSA was able to crack data transmissions that internet users thought were secure.
The Harper government allowed the U.S. to carry out widespread surveillance in Canada during the G20 meeting in Toronto in 2010, according to documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Few details of the espionage were released, but it appears this is a sort of rotating circle of spying: Canada helped the U.S. and U.K. spy on the 2009 G20 conference in London.
Canadian Wireless Telecommunications spokesman Marc Choma said he's not familiar with the just-announced new web tool and hasn't heard any feedback from companies on it.
"I am aware that Canadians can request information about their personal information held by companies, but I don't have any information about how often it happens or how companies respond," Choma said from Ottawa.
Canada's privacy commissioner revealed in April that the federal government asks telecom companies for private customer information about 1.2 million times each year.
Telecom companies complied with the government's requests at least 784,756 times, according to information provided to the office in 2011.
It's unclear how many of those requests were made without a warrant.
The Supreme Court of Canada ruled last Friday that police need a search warrant to get information from Internet service providers about their subscribers' identities during investigations.
Privacy experts believe the ruling will force Internet service providers to change their practices on voluntary warrantless disclosure.
"The government will no longer be able to use the voluntary disclosure regime," Parsons said.
"I think it's a real demonstration that the need to keep people safe in Canada doesn't mean we need to set aside their privacy rights."
For now, though, Parsons is hoping Canadians use the tool to help gain a better understanding of the scale of information collected about them. He said it will also demonstrate which third parties are potentially accessing telecom companies’ data stores.
Potential third parties range from law enforcement like the RCMP, provincial, and municipal police, to government agencies like CSIS, CSEC and the CRA, Parsons said.
Anderson said he's hopeful the results from the project will ultimately encourage the federal government to introduce "meaningful reforms."
The project was developed by OpenMedia.ca, the Citizen Lab and the Digital Stewardship Initiative.
ON THE WEB: Access My Info tool https://OpenMedia.ca/myinfo
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