08/20/2013 12:55 EDT | Updated 10/20/2013 05:12 EDT

Verizon's privacy record worries Canadian union

A union representing workers in the telecommunications industry says it is concerned about Canadians' privacy if Verizon Communications is permitted into the Canadian wireless marketplace.

The Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada is calling on Stephen Harper's government to explain how it intends to review and address national security concerns related to the New York-based company.

In the U.S., Verizon has co-operated with the National Security Agency to share personal data on millions of its U.S. customers, a fact leaked in June in the U.S. A secret U.S. order gave the NSA authority to to collect data from all of Verizon's land and mobile customers.

Now the CEP is raising the spectre that Canadians would be subject to the same surveillance if Verizon decides to enter the wireless market here.

"Canadians need to know that their government is reviewing Verizon's potential threat to national security, and what steps the U.S. company will have to take to mitigate any concerns," CEP president Dave Coles said in a press release on Tuesday.

"In their bid to woo Verizon, we hope the Harper government isn't ignoring its responsibility to do a security review."

Verizon has not confirmed it will enter the Canadian market. But it has expressed interest in the public spectrum being auctioned off this fall for wireless carriers and in two small struggling wireless companies – Wind and Mobilicity – that are potential takeover targets.

The federal government has forbidden Canadian companies Bell, Telus and Rogers from bidding for Wind and Mobilicity and has structured the spectrum auction to favour new entrants to the market.

The CEP represents thousands of workers at BCE Inc.'s Bell Canada and last week expressed opposition to Ottawa’s telecom policies, which are geared to getting a fourth competitor into the Canadian market.

The union called on the Harper government to set up a Crown corporation that would be the country's fourth major wireless carrier. At that point, it raised concerns about job losses in Canada if Verizon entered the market.

Now it is calling on the Harper government to assess national security implications if Verizon signals a desire to enter the market.

It argues that Verizon has to comply with NSA orders to hand over personal data and allow access to private conversations. The NSA is restricted from spying on Americans, but has free rein on foreigners.

"Canadians who boycott Verizon out of fear that their personal information could be delivered to U.S. authorities will not necessarily be able to sleep easy either," Coles said.

"The government's mandatory access rule gives Verizon the right to use the major Canadian telecom companies' wireless networks, which currently carry some of the country's most secure and private communications."

Industry Minister James Moore is granting interviews across Canada defending Ottawa’s wireless policies, in the face of an ad campaign by the big three carriers saying the rules are unfair.

He said more competition would mean lower cellphone prices for Canadians.

"We have more competition, we have lower prices, we have better services for the public ...The more choices a consumer has means better services and lower prices," he said in an interview in Saskatoon.

Competition in wireless has brought down the cost of cellphone plans over the past few years, Moore said in an interview with CBC’s Metro Morning, adding they are still too high.

“These large companies have very high profits, the highest profits in the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), at the same time Canadian consumers are paying some of the highest cellphone rates in the OECD. I think we can do better than that as a country,” he said.

The big three carriers have become fixated on Verizon and whether it will enter Canada, Moore said.

“I know for the big three with their ad campaign, it’s all about Verizon. For us, it’s not,” he said. “If Verizon comes, it will be good for consumers in some ways, I think it will be a challenge in other ways ... But if Verizon doesn’t come, equally, the way we’ve designed our policies, we are going to have more competition in the marketplace from other players possibly ... as well.”