Photo: Roland Tanglao/Flickr

The notorious online “snooping” bill, C-30, looks like it may be coming back for round two. Earlier this year, the government rolled out legislation to enhance police powers in the cyber age. Bill C-30 would allow police to gather telecommunications service provider (TSP) subscriber data of cell phone and Internet users without warrants. As well, the legislation would force Telecoms to create back-door spy channels into their networks to aid security agencies in keeping tabs on online criminals (and potentially ordinary citizens).

But the government’s point-man on the file, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, totally blew the rollout of this controversial bill. He stepped over the line by accusing Canadians concerned about the erosion of privacy rights of being on the side of “child pornographers.” Within days, the file had grown so politically toxic that the Conservatives were forced to beat an ignominious retreat.

The backlash showed that Canadians take their privacy rights seriously. But people shouldn’t be complacent as efforts are underway to put C-30 back on the agenda. It’s being reported that the Harper government is under pressure from the U.S. and the U.K. to pass the bill to clear the path for Canada to ratify the Council of Europe’s 2001 Convention on Cybercrime. As well, the Canadian Association of Police Chiefs (CACP) has launched a campaign under the banner of fighting “cyber-bullying” to get Toews to kick-start the legislation.

No one disagrees that police should have the tools they need to do their jobs. The New Democrats strongly support the ability of police to go after cyber-stalkers and criminals. But updating police tools should not be a signal to declare open season on the privacy rights of ordinary citizens. Changes to legislation will require a real balancing act.

Balance is not a word you associate with Vic Toews. In response to any questions about good public policy, Vic seems to like invoking the bogeyman. He is the wrong person to handle this file.

For example, let’s look at the provisions to allow police to demand TSP subscriber data without warrants. As it stands now, if police have reason to believe that crimes are being committed, they can obtain a warrant or production order. In wanting to bypass this step of court oversight, Towes claims that getting access to subscriber data is simply like getting access to a phone book.

The privacy commissioners of Canada disagree. In fact, Ontario Privacy Commissioner Anne Cavoukian says C-30 presents “one of the most invasive threats to our privacy and freedom that I have ever encountered.”

She challenges Toews’ claim that allowing basic subscriber information is the digital equivalent of using a phone book: “Customer name and address information ties us to our entire digital life, unlike a stationary street address. Therefore, ‘subscriber information’ is far from the modern day equivalent of a publicly available ‘phone book’. Rather, it is the key to a much wider, sensitive subset of information.”

In an unprecedented pushback against this legislation Canada’s federal and provincial privacy commissioners challenged the claim that doing away with warrants will disadvantage security and law enforcement efforts:

“… At no time have Canadian authorities provided the public with any evidence or reasoning to suggest that CSIS or any other Canadian law enforcement agencies have been frustrated in the performance of their duties as a result of shortcomings attributable to current law, tailored approach is vital. In our view, this balance has not been achieved.”

The privacy commissioners go further by warning that this bill will enhance “the capacity of the state to conduct surveillance and access private information while reducing the frequency and vigour of judicial scrutiny.”

If Vic Toews wants to ensure our police have the tools they need to protect Canadians in the cyber age, he will have to treat citizens with the respect they deserve.

Canadians aren’t fools. Privacy matters to us. So does balance. Justifications for online snooping by the state are not going to be solved by invoking buzzwords and bogeymen. If C-30 comes back in its current form, Canadians will push back hard. The New Democrats believe that privacy rights need to be enshrined into the design of the bill. In this way, they will deliver for citizens, the police and our international allies.

Photo: Roland Tanglao/Flickr