Think Canadians are Less Immune to Government Spying Than Americans? Think Again

Information made public last week revealed some scary stats about the Canada Border Services Agency and the data they can easily obtain about us. NDP opposition MP Charmaine Borg forced the release of a sobering disclosure about our border services agents: they made almost 19,000 requests for customer information to telecommunications companies in the span of a single year.

The most troubling component of this recent disclosure is that customs officials were able to procure our information without a warrant. Yup—no warrant required. 

The big question is how much of our privacy is being compromised here? If it makes you feel any better, for those data requests without a warrant (that would be 18,745 out of 18,797) telecoms only gave up basic subscriber information. Of the 52 requests that came bundled with a warrant, the data was more in line with what we think when we hear “government spying”—stuff like actual content of voice mails and text messages. 

Basic subscriber information—that’s not so bad, is it? It’s bad enough. Here’s why: what we’re talking about is what is referred to as “metadata.”

Metadata refers to logs of telephone calls, Internet trails or geolocation information, but it does not reveal the contents of said phone calls or specific Internet information such as chats or the content of websites visited. While the government’s stance that this type of data collection is far less invasive than actual eavesdropping, privacy advocates and Internet psychologists (yes, that profession exists) believe that this metadata can often be far more revealing than any idiosyncrasies present in our conversations.

Scared yet? It gets worse. And it’s all because of Bill C-13. The Bill, the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act, is about to be brought to Parliament for a second reading. The Conservative government has sold this primarily as one to combat cyberbullying, but there’s much more to it than protecting Canadians from being harassed online.

Let’s delve into specifics. Here’s wording taken verbatim from the Bill:

For greater certainty, no preservation demand, preservation order or production order is necessary for a peace officer or public officer to ask a person to voluntarily preserve data that the person is not prohibited by law from preserving or to voluntarily provide a document to the officer that the person is not prohibited by law from disclosing.

To make these sensitive matters much less delicate for Internet service providers and telecoms, an addition to the provision provides another cushion for data disclosure:

A person who preserves data or provides a document in those circumstances does not incur any criminal or civil liability for doing so.

If our privacy is a game of Survivor, the telcos and ISPs are being handed one giant immunity idol. This seemingly unprecedented (at least to me) legal protection for intermediaries would surely lead to far more disclosures than even the most dramatic of tribal councils. And all this without getting their hands dirty.

I’m not a lawyer, but I did study constitutional law at one point in my life. I don’t remember much of that class, but this Bill doesn’t sound too “constitutional” to me. Doesn’t this seem like the Conservatives are playing a giant game of Bait and Switch with us? “Come one, come all… look here at this shiny new Bill C-13. It will go even further to prevent Cyberbullying!” Then we step inside the tent and get a swift slap in the face by the tail of this giant privacy-sucking beast.

Yet the most frightening part of this whole Bill has nothing to do with the government; issues like this don’t make the news often enough. Don’t you think if more Canadians knew what was going on we’d do more to stop it? We could only hope so.