Privacy Experts Demand Data from Big Three, but Lack Leverage

Among the revelations contained in the documents leaked by whistle-blower Edward Snowden were indications that the Canadian spy agency CSEC helped the US government gather intel on Canadian citizens, during the already much-harangued G20 debacle in 2010 in Toronto.

Now, a group of privacy experts comprised of academics and civil liberties watchdogs has written an open letter to Canada’s telecom industry, demanding some intel of their own.

The letter asks that twelve of Canada’s telecom companies, including the monopolistic Big Three (Rogers, Telus and Bell), explain the extent to which they share their customer’s private data with our government.  While the deadline for a response is in March, it remains to be seen how much information, if any, the companies can and will provide.

“There’s no law whatsoever that compels them to answer,” explained Christopher Parsons, the Postdoctoral Fellow at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, who spearheaded the effort.

“This isn’t a description of something … evil or nebulous or treacherous or something going on,” he said. “Telecom companies are served with orders. They do disclose information, and we’re just asking how often does that happen, and under what conditions?”

In answer to the claim that if you weren’t up to something, you wouldn’t be investigated, the letter seeks to determine how many requests for private details by the government fell into terrorism, child exploitation, national security, and foreign intelligence buckets. Presumably, these data may expose an overlap between Canadian citizens being investigated for specific crimes, and the kind of blanket surveillance we’ve seen carried out by the NSA South of the border. Parsons is careful to not necessarily conflate the tactics of the American government with the largely unknown approaches undertaken by our own.

“One of the unfortunate things that we’ve been left with in this country is that we don’t know very much about what’s going on in Canada,” Parsons said. “This is an effort to get real Canadian data. We don’t have to pretend that whatever’s happening in Canada is the same as what’s happening in the United States.”

David Christopher, Communications Manager for OpenMedia.ca, a consumer advocacy group, said he was optimistic the telecom companies would be motivated to respond. “If they want to maintain trust and confidence, they really should be answering these questions.”

This past year, Industry Minister James Moore denounced the Big Three’s fervent efforts to prevent US-based Verizon from participating in a Canadian spectrum auction as “dishonest” and “misleading.” Whether or not the Canadian telecom industry has very much trust or confidence from its customers to maintain is arguable.