02/20/2012 12:16 EST | Updated 04/20/2012 05:12 EDT

Opposition Jumps On Surveillance Bill Confusion


Public Safety Minister Vic Toews' office sought to clear up confusion over the government's online surveillance bill Sunday, following comments by the minister that suggested he was surprised by some of the bill's contents.

In an interview that aired Saturday on CBC Radio's The House, Toews told host Evan Solomon he would seek an explanation for wording in Section 17 of Bill C-30, which outlines "exceptional circumstances" under which "any police officer" can request an internet service provider turn over customer information without a warrant.

In an email to CBC News on Sunday, Toews' director of communications, Mike Patton, wrote that "the Minister has said numerous times, nothing contained in the legislation gives officers further powers to access any sort of communication without a warrant."

Patton said Section 17 "simply extends the powers of a police officer to request 'phonebook' information — from the limited number of officers in a normal circumstance to any officer in an emergency."

When Solomon read out the section during The House interview, Toews said, "I'm not familiar with that framing of the concern because, as I understand it, they can only ask for this information where they are conducting a specific criminal investigation."

"This is the first time I'm hearing [that] this somehow extends ordinary police emergency powers," Toews said. "In my opinion, it doesn't. And it shouldn't."

NDP says bill should be withdrawn

NDP justice critic Jack Harris told CBC News the surveillance bill should be withdrawn and scrapped.

"It comes as a great shock to me, and it should to all Canadians, that Minister Toews is introducing legislation that he doesn't understand the contents of," he wrote.

Liberal public safety critic Francis Scarpaleggia told CBC News "the minister has opened up a new pandora's box."

"He wasn't sure if [Section 17] was in the context of a criminal investigation or if it could just be a fishing expedition, but the fact that the minister isn't clear about what's in his own bill is problematic."

Toews was criticized last week because he told Scarpaleggia in the House of Commons that he could "either stand with us or with the child pornographers," after the Liberal MP asked about privacy concerns arising from the bill.

'Go back to the drawing board'

In a telephone interview with CBC News on Sunday, Chantal Bernier, the assistant privacy commissioner of Canada, said there are "sources of concern" with Bill C-30.

According to Bernier, under this legislation "the government would create an obligation for internet service providers to give, upon written request from designated officers without any judicial authorization, the subscriber information behind an IP address."

"Our technologists tell us, that those data elements, are enough to construct enough of a profile to then track the online activities of an individual — and that without a warrant, without having to prove suspicion of criminal activity," said Bernier.

The federal privacy commissioner's office would like to see amendments brought in to protect the privacy of law-abiding Canadians, Bernier said.

And while Toews has sent the bill to committee for second reading, Michael Geist, a privacy expert and law professor at the University of Ottawa, told CBC News that "the government needs to go back to the drawing board."

Otherwise, Geist warns the alternative could be costly.

'"The notion that the government can screw this up, that they can install that sort of surveillance capabilities, that they can dispense with basic notions of privacy on the internet, I think is something that would stick for literally decades in the minds of many Canadians," Geist said.

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