Police in Canada Want Access to Encryption Keys

Ray Walsh

Ray Walsh

August 18, 2016

Police in Canada are pushing for new legislation that would allow them to seize encryption keys, hugely endangering Canadian peoples’ rights to digital privacy.

Digital privacy and encryption are synonymous. In fact, anyone that knows anything about cyber security understands that the two are inextricably linked. That is because encryption, and our ability to use it, is central to our ability to protect our online actions and communications. As well as to protect our data from thieves and hackers (and overreaching governments) that might want to penetrate our personal devices.

In the US, the 5th Amendment guarantees that citizens do not have to incriminate themselves. Sadly, in other Western nations people aren’t so lucky. In the UK, for example, RIPA legislation passed in the year 2000 theoretically allows cops to force encryption keys out of British citizen’s hands against their will.

Now Canadian police are encouraging Parliament to enact a similar policy, in the name of national security.

encryption keys wantedEncryption Keys – Canada’s Most Wanted

The pressure for change is coming from The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP); a national lobby whose membership consists of police officers from around the country. On Tuesday, CACP passed a resolution at its annual conference that galvanized its intention to lobby the Canadian government for the intrusive new powers.

If the cops get what they want, judges will decide on a case by case basis whether Canadian citizens should have to hand over encryption keys for their personal computers and devices.

Micheal Vonn director of BC Civil Liberties Association has gone on the record to express his distaste towards the proposed legislation,

‘To say this is deeply problematic is to understate the matter. We have all kinds of laws that do not compel people to incriminate themselves or even speak.’

Tamir Israel a lawyer for the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (an organization that advocates ‘in the public interest on diverse issues arising at the intersection of law and technology’) concurs with Vonn’s opinion,

‘I’d question whether this proposal is constitutional. It’s rare to force people to help police investigate themselves, and for good reason.

It shifts the focus of criminal condemnation away from actual criminal activity and onto compliance. So if an individual legitimately objects to handing over their password, that alone makes them criminal.’

Similar Existing Laws in the UK

In the UK, where RIPA already allows police to ask for those keys, things are far from black and white. In the case of Lauri Love, for example, a UK court found in favor of the defendant. Love, who hacked various US government agencies and the Federal Reserve, allegedly caused millions of dollars of damage.

The UK’s version of the FBI (the National Crime Agency [NCA]), however, failed to use Section 49 of the RIPA bill to force Mr. Love’s private encryption keys from him. NCA was ultimately denied by the UK court – revealing that it is possible to successfully challenge the bill.

If Canada passes similar legislation, it would also be down to individual judges (on a case by case basis) to decide whether a defendant should have to hand over their private keys. The worry is, however, that the desired new law could force Canadians to grant police access to private messages, photos, and personal data, which it later turns out had nothing to do with an ongoing case. A point of contention that Vonn feels would be ‘tricky constitutionally.’

Despite CACP’s decision to lobby for the new bill, however, it may be a little early to start worrying about the demise of digital privacy in Canada. That is because CACP is known for traditionally lobbying for changes that go well beyond current legal permissions. Requests that they have not always managed to secure.

open your eyes

Digital Privacy – A Growing Awareness

It is believed that the current push for legislation is directly related to a general consumer trend for digital self-protection. Throughout Canada, people are becoming aware of the dangers of snooping governments – including the Five Eyes alliance. That intelligence alliance between the US, Australia, the UK, Canada and New Zealand – coupled with the Snowden revelations from 2013 – is making people protect themselves much more actively.

Sadly, the outcome of people turning to robust full disk encryption, VPN services, and Tor project to protect their digital footprint online is a desire from authorities to clamp down on those technologies. Leading police agencies’ to push for ever more privacy eroding legislation.

As is always the case when a draconian law is suggested, any interested party that feels strongly about the human right to privacy is encouraged to contact their local parliamentarian to push for this legislation to be rejected. Privacy is a fundamental human right and one that all citizens are advised to seek to control for themselves. After all, there is no better person to protect your family’s digital privacy than yourself!

Ray Walsh

I am a freelance journalist and blogger from England. I am highly interested in politics and in particular the subject of IR. I am an advocate for freedom of speech, equality, and personal privacy. On a more personal level I like to stay active, love snowboarding, swimming and cycling, enjoy seafood, and love to listen to trap music.

4 responses to “Police in Canada Want Access to Encryption Keys

  1. “In the US, the 4th Amendment guarantees that citizens do not have to incriminate themselves.”

    Ray, it’s actually the 5th Amendment that protects against self-incrimination. Here is its complete text:

    No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

    1. Hi Quick Brows Fox,

      Thanks for that correction – it was actually my fault for something I said to Ray, but he should have checked (I didn’t, as it was an off-the-cuff comment). I have amended the article accordingly.

    1. Hi bouby,

      Not exactly – you can still encrypt stuff, but must hand over your passwords to the the police when ordered to do so. IMO this law is rather pointless, because anyone who really has something to hide will simply take whatever penalty is decided for not complying, rather than incriminate themselves by complying.

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