A controversial privacy bill passed through the House of Commons on Monday night has been a long time coming.
Bill C-13, which anchors itself to well-supported anti-cyberbullying legislation, is being pitched by the Conservative government as a necessary, 21st century update to the Criminal Code, the Canada Evidence Act, the Competition Act and the Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Act.
The new legislation, if one is to believe Justice Minister Peter MacKay, is simply a bit of housekeeping to allow police more streamlined access to criminals’ online information when needed.
But the alarm bells should be ringing for all Canadians, particularly when organizations as diverse as the federal Privacy Commissioner, firearms groups, constitutional lawyers, former Conservative cabinet minister Stockwell Day, Carol Todd (mother of cyberbullying victim Amanda Todd) and the Canadian Bar Association say the bill is Orwellian and likely to be torn up in court.
The bill will allow police to more readily access online data, phone records, install and monitor digital tracking devices and intercept communications, practises that already take place during some major crime investigations across Canada.
While a judge will still need to sign off on a warrant for much of that information under the new rules, critics say the threshold for a warrant is being lowered. The main concern: police will too easily be able to access private online data.
Part of the problem is that law enforcement and intelligence agencies have an inherent tendency to allow “function creep,” a term that refers to expanding police powers in the absence of strict oversight and review. (For a local example, Google “Automated Licence Plate Recognition” technology and read about how the B.C. RCMP debated mining licence plate data collected by Victoria and Saanich police departments for further investigative purposes. The idea was quashed by the B.C. Privacy Commissioner in 2013.)
A bill that lowers the bar for police to conduct digital surveillance and mine the protected online data of Canadians for an expanding number of reasons is disturbing. Environmental activists in particular should be wary of being targeted by softer rules around wiretapping and data-mining.
There are likely pieces of information in all of our social media accounts, bank statements and cellular and internet histories that would lead to questions about who we know or what we do.
Allowing police and intelligence agencies easier access to that information is exactly what the revelations of Edward Snowden are meant to prevent. Don’t fall asleep at the wheel while this legislation sails through. Get informed and raise a stink.