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Canada’s Privacy Commissioner investigates RCMP warrantless data collection

Following revelations published by the Star and the Halifax Chronicle Herald last week, showing that government and law enforcement agencies are requesting telecoms and social media companies turn over Canadians’ user data at ‘jaw-dropping’ rates (nearly 1.2 million were made in 2011 alone, and almost 19,000 between April 1, 2012 and March 31, 2013), the Office of the Privacy Commissioner (Canada’s privacy watchdog) has confirmed that it will be investigating the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Force’s (RCMP) data collection practices.

The revelations were made by Chantel Bernier, the former privacy commissioner, who said that Canadian authorities (including the RCMP) routinely asked nine companies, representing a ‘substantial portion’ of the Canadian telecom market, to hand over ‘basic subscriber information’ such as names, phone numbers, addresses, and IP addresses, which they voluntarily did. According to the Star,

Based on responses from just three of the nine providers, 784,756 users and accounts were subject to disclosure to government agencies in 2011… The companies say they don’t inform their customers when their information is turned over to authorities, meaning the vast majority of those customers would have no knowledge of the transaction.

‘How much does spy agency CSEC know about your private life?’ Video produced by the Canadian Protect Our Privacy Coalition

Bernier complained that any attempts to investigate the companies involved, or to establish a legal framework for the collection of data, had failed,

‘We have tried, many times. We have sought out information from the telecoms to find out, and they’ve given us very general comments. We would like there to be a provision in law that creates a framework, a legal framework, to let Canadians know exactly what is (the scope of) the warrantless access.

Public Safety Canada (the government agency responsible for protecting Canadians’ health and safety) confirmed that numerous attempts to draft a system of oversight and accountability of Canada’s security and law enforcement agencies had been attempted, but have so far failed,

Those provisions would have required that law enforcement agencies and (the Canadian Security Intelligence Service) create written records of each request, conduct regular audits of practices, deliver these audits to responsible ministers, and be subject to review by relevant oversight bodies.

Rather than addressing this situation, the government is currently considering Bill S-4, a new Data Privacy Act that one of Canada’s leading Internet privacy experts, Micheal Geist, says will actually increase the number of organizations that can ask social media and telecoms companies for customers’ data,

It is a structure that allows for the massive disclosure of personal information with no court oversight whatsoever. It’s stunning to think that this is what the government is proposing.

Before retiring, former Senator Hugh Segal tabled legislation to create a civilian oversight body for Canada’s police and spy agencies, but as with similar legislation before, this appears to have been shelved. Geist takes a very cynical view about what the public can do about the situation,

What choice do you have, other than simply going off-line? The reality is your data is out there, it’s obviously being collected, and it can be used and disclosed many times without any kind of oversight.

The EFF supported Canadian Protect Our Privacy Coalition, however, which ‘includes over 60 major organizations and over a dozen academic experts’ ‘is calling for effective legal measures to protect Canadians’ privacy from government spies’, and is looking for volunteers…


Douglas Crawford I am a freelance writer, technology enthusiast, and lover of life who enjoys spinning words and sharing knowledge for a living. Find me on Google+

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