OTTAWA - A move by telecommunications firms to be more forthcoming with the public about their role in police and spy surveillance could divulge "sensitive operational details," a senior Public Safety official warned in a classified memo.
Company efforts to reveal more about police and intelligence requests — even the disclosure of broad numbers — would require "extensive consultations with all relevant stakeholders," wrote Lynda Clairmont, senior assistant deputy minister for national and cybersecurity.
Clairmont's note, released under the Access to Information Act, provided advice to deputy minister Francois Guimont on the eve of his one-hour April 17 meeting with representatives of Telus Corp. to discuss specifically what information the company was allowed to tell the public about electronic surveillance activities.
Telus released a so-called "transparency report" five months later, revealing it had received more than 103,000 official requests for information about subscribers in 2013.
Rogers Communications published a similar report in June — three months before Telus — becoming the first of the major Canadian telecom firms to issue one. Bell Canada, the other major company, has yet to release a report.
The internal Public Safety memo sheds new light on behind-the-scenes tensions between government officials and industry amid pressure from privacy advocates and civil libertarians for details of the scope and nature of law enforcement access to Canadians' subscriber information, phone calls and email messages.
The demand for more transparency was fuelled by leaks from former American intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, whose significant disclosures revealed the U.S. National Security Agency had access to a huge volume of telecommunications data.
The revelations prompted a flurry of questions about the activities of the NSA's Canadian counterpart, the Communications Security Establishment, as well as the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the RCMP.
The Public Safety Department is committed to protecting the security of Canadians while respecting their privacy, Clairmont wrote in her April 16 memo to Guimont, stamped "Secret/Canadian Eyes Only."
"We recognize that transparency is key to giving Parliament and Canadians confidence in our ability to meet both these objectives, but must continue to ensure that sensitive operational details remain protected."
There was a need to evaluate whether such details could be revealed even through "mass aggregate reporting of data," she added.
A month before Telus's scheduled meeting with Guimont, the company said it was prohibited from disclosing certain information by a governing document known as "Solicitor General's Enforcement Standards for Lawful Interception of Telecommunications."
In a letter to Christopher Parsons of the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, a digital rights body, Telus privacy officer Heather Hawley said the company would ask the government to "clarify and limit the scope of current confidentiality requirements and to consider measures to facilitate greater transparency."
Neither Telus and Public Safety would make anyone available to answer questions about their discussions.
Rogers spokesman Kevin Spafford said the company did not talk with the government about its June transparency report before it was published.
The report said Rogers received almost 175,000 requests for customer information from government and police agencies last year. Of those, 74,415 were made under a warrant or court order, including production orders, summons, subpoenas and search warrants issued by a judge or other judicial officer.
In deciding what to disclose in its transparency report, the company abided by just one restriction, Ken Engelhart, chief privacy officer for Rogers, said at the time.
"The only legal restraint is that you can't even give a number of wireless interceptions that you do — that's like a wiretap, but it's a wireless tap," Engelhart said in an interview.
It was important to get a transparency report out, he continued.
"I'm hopeful it won't bother the law enforcement people, but if it does, we thought that the needs of our customers came first."
Follow @JimBronskill on TwitterALSO ON HUFFPOST:
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.