Online surveillance bill rekindles debate pitting police powers against privacy

OTTAWA – The tabling of federal legislation that would give police and spies easier access to information about Internet users reignited a pitched debate Tuesday about whether the measures are unduly invasive.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said the legislation was simply an attempt to bring the law into the 21st century, rejecting NDP warnings the bill threatens to turn Canada into a surveillance society.

The bill would allow authorities access to Internet subscriber information – including name, address, telephone number and email address – without first getting a court’s go-ahead. Currently, it is voluntary for Internet service providers to hand such data to police.

The legislation would also require telecommunication service providers to have the technical capability to allow authorities to intercept messages and conversations.

The proposed measures pit the desire of intelligence and law-enforcement officials to have ready access to information about people online against the individual’s right to privacy.

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Nicholson said the proposed changes will give police and security services the tools they need to deal with sophisticated cyber-criminals – from online pedophiles to scam artists – while respecting privacy rights.

He was accompanied by Public Safety Minister Vic Toews and a phalanx of officers at the Ottawa police station, the government’s chosen venue for presenting the bill it calls the Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act.

In addition to basic information about the subscriber, the bill would allow police, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the Competition Bureau to demand the user’s Internet protocol address, a numeric code identifying their computer.

Toews said police often experience hurdles and delays in getting such information from Internet service providers, forcing them to lose precious time in tracking suspects. “It’s clear we need a better system.”

The government says officers need the subscriber data to persuade a judge to grant a warrant that would only then allow police to see the actual content of messages or a person’s web-surfing destinations.

Under the bill, telecommunications providers could be ordered to preserve data for a specified period to give police time to obtain a warrant.

The NDP said the legislation opens the door to snooping and police fishing expeditions.

“We are against this bill and we will fight this bill all the way,” said New Democrat MP Charlie Angus. “Canadians are not criminals.”

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Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart – who spoke out about a previous incarnation of the measures – said Tuesday she still has concerns about access to subscriber information without a warrant.

“Since this broad power is not limited to reasonable grounds to suspect criminal activity or to a criminal investigation, it could affect any law-abiding citizen,” her office said in a statement.

It will review the bill to determine how the government justifies “warrantless access in a free and democratic society.”

The bill sets the stage for “needless invasions of privacy for law-abiding Canadians,” said the group, which supports an open and affordable Internet.

The government pointed to safeguards in the bill, including record-keeping requirements and regular internal audits to ensure the powers aren’t abused.

When a Liberal MP asked Monday about the coming bill, Toews said he could either stand with the government or with child pornographers prowling online.

Opposition MPs have denounced the minister’s comments as an insult to those who care about civil liberties.

“I say to Vic Toews, ‘Stop hiding behind the bogeyman. Stop using the bogeyman to attack the basic rights of Canadian citizens’,” said Angus.

“I think Vic Toews has besmirched his reputation as a minister.”

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Toews tried to deflect questions about his comments Tuesday, saying the legislation now on the books allows Internet pornographers to flourish.

“We need to take steps to prevent that proliferation.”