04/23/2012 04:21 EDT

Lawful Access: Public Safety Canada Argues It Needs New Spy Powers If Foreign Ownership Of Telecoms Allowed


Canadians’ desire for greater competition in the wireless market means the government will need expanded surveillance powers, a letter from Public Safety Canada argues.

The confidential letter, obtained last week by Bloomberg News, links the government’s plan to open up the wireless market to foreign companies with the need for a large-scale expansion of government surveillance powers.

The letter suggested that allowing greater foreign ownership of wireless companies, as well as a larger number of wireless carriers, “would pose a considerable risk to public safety and national security” unless mitigating measures are put into place.

Digital law expert Michael Geist points out in a blog post Monday that those mitigating measures appear to be Bill C-30 -- the controversial proposal to expand government surveillance powers, commonly known as the “online spying” or “lawful access” bill.


“Today, with a limited number of companies and all with Canadian ownership, authorities and service providers often work together to develop and implement network solutions to support investigative requirements,” the Public Safety Department wrote in the letter, which was obtained under a Freedom of Information request.

“With market diversification and an increased number of service providers, the need for legislation requiring intercept-capable networks becomes paramount,” the letter continues.

The letter then references Bill C-52, the predecessor in the last Parliament to the current online spying bill.

“Through Bill C-52, the Investigating and Preventing Criminal Electronic Communications Act, the Government is pursuing legislation that will help keep Canadians safe by equipping the police and national security agencies with the tools they need to combat crime and terrorism in the digital age. This legislation would help mitigate against possible threats from hostile foreign entities that would seek to exploit possible future relaxation of the foreign ownership restrictions in the telecommunications market,” the letter continues.

Geist predicts on his blog that this will become a “likely line of argument” for Public Safety Canada when the proposed surveillance law comes before Parliament once again.

The Conservative government unveiled its latest version of the online spying law in February, only to face an almost instant public backlash when Public Safety Minister Vic Toews accused those who opposed the bill of siding “with the child pornographers.”

The bill has since been sent to committee for consultation, and may return to Parliament in a very different form. However, recent reports suggest the changes being proposed would only expand spying powers, rather than restrict them.

Polls have shown that Canadians are largely unreceptive to plans to expand government digital surveillance.

The Public Safety letter was the department’s submission to Industry Canada on a consultation about the government’s auction of the 700-megahertz bandwidth, and proposals to allow more foreign ownership of wireless carriers.

In an effort to spur greater competition in cellphone service, the government recently loosened the formula on foreign ownership. While previously wireless carriers could not be more than 46.7 per cent foreign owned, the new rules allow an unlimited amount of foreign ownership if the telecom in question has less than 10 per cent market share. (The large telecoms control more than 90 per cent of Canada’s market).

Though foreign ownership of telecom companies is a common phenomenon in most developed countries these days, Public Safety Canada insisted in its letter that allowing foreign-owned entrants would jeopardize national security.

“An increasing number of new service providers operating in Canada, as well as the continuous rapid roll-out of increasingly complex, new and possibly untrusted technologies can create challenges for law enforcement and national security agencies in their ability to carry out lawful investigations,” the letter stated.


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