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Liberals' Digital Surveillance Proposals Far Scarier Than Bill C-51

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Imagine how you would feel if the government installed cameras in your home that recorded everything you did, then gave police the power to review the footage without a warrant, whenever they want.

If that sounds to you like a gross violation of your privacy, you should probably be aware that the federal Liberals are contemplating pretty much exactly that for the digital world.

The Trudeau government has launched a review of Bill C-51, the controversial piece of legislation passed under the Harper government and supported by the then-opposition Liberals.

But while the public largely expects the review to get rid of some of the more "problematic elements" of Bill C-51 (since that's what the Liberals promised), the review actually looks more like a roadmap to expanding those very same "problematic elements."

ralph goodale
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale has vowed to remove "problematic elements" of Bill C-51, but his department's survey suggests it's looking at ways of enhancing the bill instead. (Photo: The Canadian Press/Justin Tang)

From the Public Safety department's survey on the issue, it's clear what the Liberals want to do, or are at least contemplating:

Warrantless access

One of the ideas being considered is what has been called "lawful access" -- the policy that law enforcement should be allowed to access information about Internet users without a warrant.

It's not clear how much data they would want to be made available without a judge's consent, but at the very minimum, they want basic subscriber info (BSI, as the Public Safety survey confusingly calls it), which means your name, your phone number, your physical address and so on.

stephen harper
Former prime minister Stephen Harper left "lawful access" out of Bill C-51, but the Liberals may be bringing it back. (Photo: The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)

When the "lawful access" idea was being bandied about during the Harper era, it was limited to basic subscriber info, and failed to make it into Bill C-51 on account of public opposition.

Supporters argue lawful access is the digital equivalent of looking someone up in a phone book, something police don't need a warrant to do. But whether or not that analogy is correct depends on what you can find when you are given someone's subscriber info. And that brings us to the next, and most problematic, element of these proposals.

Data retention

The Liberals are also contemplating introducing data retention requirements -- forcing Internet providers to retain a complete record of subscribers' activities online, for some period of time.

This is something the U.K. government recently passed into law, with a one-year retention period, despite widespread political opposition. Some tech blogs are comparing the Liberals' plans to the U.K. legislation, suggesting the British law -- derisively called the "Snoopers' Charter" -- is the inspiration for Canada's attempt at the same thing.


Bill C-51 currently allows police or judges to issue "preservation orders" to Internet providers that would require them to hold on to information they have about a subscriber. But under a "data retention" regime, Internet providers would be required to log all information about their subscribers' online activities, and hand those over when requested by the law.

Combine that with the "lawful access" proposal, and what you have here is pretty scary. Under "data retention," police would be able to scan all your activity online, and under "lawful access," they would be able to do it whenever they want, without court oversight.

This is what I meant by "the digital equivalent of a camera in your home." It's a heck of a lot more than looking someone up in a phone book.

Wait, there's more

The Public Safety questionnaire places a lot of emphasis on encryption, leading some to speculate online the department may be looking at requiring "backdoors" into encrypted files.

This could mean that companies which build encryption software would have to build in a way to hack those encryptions.

The argument here is that terrorists, child pornographers and others are encrypting information, making it very difficult (though not impossible) for law enforcement to access the data.

But encryption is much more widely used than that -- businesses encrypt their data to keep it from being stolen; messaging services like WhatsApp and BlackBerry Messenger use it to protect the privacy of their users.

bill c51
A protest banner opposing Bill C-51 outside Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (Photo: Obiemad via Flickr)

Some experts have argued that building encryption backdoors is a threat to the economy in the digital age, when so much value is derived from information itself. After all, if the police can hack their way into sensitive corporate data, so can a hacker.

In this instance, though, the government seems to be leaning towards a less draconian solution -- compelling people and businesses to decrypt data in specific circumstances. The questionnaire indicates they're looking for a solution that would "not limit the beneficial uses of encryption," suggesting at the very least they're aware of the problem.

(Canada's security agencies seem to have a real hate on for encryption. The CSE secretly helped the U.S. National Security Agency compromise data encryption, according to documents leaked by Edward Snowden.)

They're trying to trick you

What alarms me most about the C-51 review is not the proposals themselves, but how the government appears to be selling them to the public. In short, they want you to agree to these ideas without realizing what you've agreed to.

The Public Safety department's survey contains questions that are imprecise, confusingly long and sometimes misleading. Understanding things is essentially what I do for a living, and I had to read these questions three or four times before they started to make some sense, and even then.

Try this question on for size:

Since the Spencer decision, police and national security agencies have had difficulty obtaining BSI in a timely and efficient manner. This has limited their ability to carry out their mandates, including law enforcement's investigation of crimes. If the Government developed legislation to respond to this problem, under what circumstances should BSI (such as name, address, telephone number and email address) be available to these agencies?

What's more, the questions, though vague, are framed in such a way that respondents are more likely to agree with an expansion of government powers. This is known as "push polling," and it's more than a little disturbing that the federal government engages in this kind of activity.

Are you like me? Are you beginning to get the sense that, rather than gauging public opinion, the Liberals are trying to get you to tune out, so they can do whatever they want in the online world?

If you dare wade into the confusing verbal mess that is Public Safety's survey, you can find it here. (You'll also need to trust them to handle your personal information responsibly, which, given the privacy concerns about the government's electoral reform survey, might not be a good bet.)

But if you can't make sense of it, as was likely the intention, a better bet would be to contact your local MP, and let them know you're not interested in having Big Brother looking over your shoulder every time you log on.

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