10/27/2011 11:43 EDT | Updated 12/27/2011 05:12 EST

Jennifer Stoddart, Canada's Privacy Commissioner, Reiterates Warning Over 'Lawful Access' Law


OTTAWA - The federal privacy watchdog says government plans to make electronic surveillance easier for police and spies must include stronger public protections.

In a letter to the public safety minister, Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart warns against simply resurrecting a trio of previous federal bills to expand surveillance powers.

Stoddart tells Vic Toews these pieces of legislation, which were never passed, endangered privacy.

"In brief, these bills went far beyond simply maintaining investigative capacity or modernizing search powers," says the letter, her latest expression of concern about the proposed measures.

"Rather, they added significant new capabilities for investigators to track, and search and seize digital information about individuals."

The issue, which has arisen periodically since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, pits the desire of intelligence and law-enforcement officials to have easier access to information about people online against the individual's right to privacy.

Toews wasn't available Thursday to discuss the coming legislation. However, his office said the government will strike an appropriate balance between necessary investigative powers and the protection of privacy.

Of particular concern to the privacy commissioner are provisions that would allow authorities access to Internet subscriber information without first getting a court's go-ahead.

Stoddart and her provincial and territorial counterparts wrote Public Safety last March to outline their concerns.

She remains concerned about the adoption of lower thresholds for obtaining personal information from commercial enterprises such as Internet service providers.

The new powers envisaged are not limited to specific, serious offences or urgent or exceptional situations, says Stoddart.

"In the case of access to subscriber data, there is not even a requirement for the commission of a crime to justify access to personal information — real names, home address, unlisted numbers, email addresses, IP addresses and much more — without a warrant.

"Only prior court authorization provides the rigorous privacy protection Canadians expect."

Under one of the lapsed bills, designated individuals within the RCMP, Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Competition Bureau or provincial police would have the power to demand subscriber data.

All requests would have to be made in writing, and relate to "a duty or function" of one of the agencies. The information could be used only for the purpose for which it was obtained — not to go on an investigative fishing expedition — in keeping with the Privacy Act.

However, Stoddart's office has raised concerns about breaches of this principle in the past.

Stoddart says the oversight and reporting safeguards proposed by the government "must be significantly strengthened" should Parliament ultimately allow police and national security authorities to bypass the courts to obtain personal information.

Despite repeated calls, the federal government has not shown a need for the new investigative capabilities outlined in the previous Conservative bills, adds Stoddart.

"Canadian authorities have yet to provide the public with evidence to suggest that CSIS or Canadian police cannot perform their duties under the current regime."