One of the voices behind a new declaration on mass surveillance says Canada needs a commission of inquiry to ensure governments and corporations respect privacy in an era of big data.

David Murakami Wood, a professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., says it's time for an in-depth look at how organizations routinely collect and sort huge amounts of personal information.

Murakami Wood, a member of the university's Surveillance Studies Centre, joined other academics and civil libertarians in publishing the seven-point statement aimed at improving accountability.

The statement calls for a public process to come up with a comprehensive legal framework for information and privacy rights, building on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and United Nations principles.

"We have no particular opinion on what kind of a process, as long as it's open and accountable," Murakami Wood said in an interview.

"But that kind of thing has to happen, it's about time. We need to start taking this seriously at a national level."

Growing public concern over spying

The initiative comes amid public concern about surveillance by western security agencies, the large-scale transfer of Internet customer data to state authorities, and a legislative move by the federal government to make it easier for police and spies to find out more about online activities.

The government claims authorities need easier access to subscriber information held by Internet providers to catch terrorists, pedophiles and other criminals.

The individuals and organizations who signed the statement on surveillance say Canadian privacy and data protection laws and regulations are regularly bypassed, undermined or broken, and are inadequate to protect the rights of Canadians.

Declaration calls for more transparency, oversight

The declaration urges:

  • Any planned government changes that affect privacy rights be "presented, justified, and debated in a transparent manner," not hidden in unrelated bills.
  • An end to expansion of rules allowing warrantless collection of private information without oversight.
  • Extended powers for federal and provincial privacy commissioners, including the ability to prosecute and fine state bodies and private companies for breaches.
  • All state security, intelligence, policing and border agencies be subject to appropriate legal, judicial and democratic oversight.

Among the organizations supporting the declaration are Amnesty International Canada, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, the Ottawa-based International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association and Privacy International.

'This is not a government that listens'

Murakami Wood says governments need to keep some secrets.

But he argues the systems of accountability and regulation themselves cannot be hidden from the public.

"We've got to start opening these things up."

He is not optimistic the federal Conservatives will act on the recommendations.

"What I think will happen is that the government will completely ignore most of this as long as it can," he said.

"This is not a government that listens."