Six months ago, we argued that Canadians face a stark privacy deficit. A perfect storm of spy agency surveillance, privacy-undermining legislation, and lax privacy safeguards at government departments sparked concern from citizens right across the political spectrum.
Since then, sadly, the situation has further deteriorated. The government’s surveillance bill C-13 became law. The Supreme Court ruled that police don’t require a warrant to search the cell phones of people they arrest. The private tax information of hundreds of Canadians was leaked to the CBC. And the government is building a powerful new system to collect and analyze what Canadians are saying on Facebook.
All this within just the past few months. And just last week we learned that the government’s spy agency CSEC is spying on our private online activities on a massive scale. Documents from whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that a CSEC program called LEVITATION systematically collects and analyzes 10-15 million downloads from popular file hosting websites each and every day. And, despite repeated government assurances to the contrary, Canadian Internet addresses were among the targets.
As constitutional lawyer Glenn Greenwald told the CBC, this marked the first official confirmation that Canada is engaged in the type of indiscriminate mass surveillance people have come to associate with the U.S. NSA. Anyone can be a victim — if you’ve used any of over a hundred popular file hosting websites in the past three years, chances are you’ve had your online activity collected and analyzed by CSEC, acting without a warrant and with no independent oversight.
These developments have focused minds and prompted debate about what it will take to truly safeguard Canadians’ privacy in a digital age. Our organization has spent the past few months crowdsourcing ideas from Canadians, and already it’s clear that there is a great deal that can be done to tackle our privacy deficit:
1. Stronger warrant requirements:
Government authorities have long been expected to obtain a search warrant to access citizens’ sensitive personal information. Recent developments have undermined this safeguard — including lower warrant thresholds in Bill C-13, the Supreme Court’s recent cell phone privacy ruling, and the government’s Bill C-44 which makes Canadians living overseas vulnerable to surveillance.
Future privacy legislation should require a warrant for government authorities to monitor the personal information of Canadians at home or overseas. This common-sense step would significantly strengthen privacy protections for all Canadians.
2. End the mass collection of metadata:
Thanks to Edward Snowden, we’ve learned that the “Five Eyes” spy alliance, of which Canada’s CSEC is a key part, collects deeply revealing communications metadata on a mass scale. And, with last week’s exposure of the LEVITATION program, we know now that CSEC is responsible for actually leading mass surveillance programs rather than just being a partner. To safeguard privacy, we need legislation to prevent agencies like CSEC obtaining Canadians’ metadata without a warrant or court order.
3. Oversight and review of spy agencies:
The Snowden revelations have also focused attention on the lack of effective oversight mechanisms to hold spy agencies accountable to Parliament. Liberal MP Joyce Murray and Conservative Senator Hugh Segal have each proposed stronger powers of oversight and review over CSEC’s activities. These steps would bring Canada into line with its global counterparts and should form part of any future pro-privacy legislation.
4. Tightening voluntary disclosure rules:
There has been a lot of concern about telecom providers “voluntarily” disclosing personal information about their customers to governments and other entities. In a landmark win for privacy, the Supreme Court ruled last June that government agents need a warrant to obtain this information. However, the government’s Bill S-4 could see Canadians’ personal information disclosed, without any oversight, to third parties, including U.S. copyright trolls. This loophole must be closed.
5. Accountability for privacy breaches:
Privacy breaches at government departments have become worryingly commonplace, affecting over 725,000 Canadians including high-profile figures like Margaret Atwood and Jean Chretien. New safeguards should require government agents at all levels to document all activities, decisions and processes that may impact on the privacy of Canadians.
These proposals should form the core ingredients of any future legislation that purports to safeguard the digital privacy of Canadians. This is a practical agenda, but given the power of entrenched security bureaucracies, it will require significant political will to implement.
That said, it’s an election year, and decision-makers in all parties have a clear incentive to take a pro-privacy stance. Voters should be wary of politicians who “talk the talk” on privacy without committing to the concrete steps detailed above.
We’ll continue to work alongside the large, non-partisan Protect our Privacy Coalition to ensure Canadians have the strong privacy safeguards they deserve. You can learn more at OurPrivacy.ca.
Steve Anderson is the Executive Director of OpenMedia, a community-based organization that safeguards the possibilities of the open Internet. David Christopher is the Communications Manager with OpenMedia. A version of this piece originally appeared in the CCPA Monitor.