Police need warrantless access to Internet subscriber information to keep pace with child predators and other online
criminals, says RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson.

The top Mountie said Wednesday that a Supreme Court of Canada ruling curtailing the flow of basic data about customers — such as name and address — has "put a chill on our ability to initiate investigations."

"I'm all for warrantless access to subscriber info," Paulson told a security conference in Ottawa, comparing the process to his beat-cop days of entering licence-plate data into a computer and coming up with a vehicle owner's name.

"If I had to get a judge on the phone every time I wanted to run a licence plate when I was doing my policing, there wouldn't have been much policing getting done."

Mounting public concern

In June last year, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled police must have a judge's authorization to obtain customer data linked to online activities.

The high court rejected the notion the federal privacy law governing companies allowed them to hand over subscriber identities voluntarily.

Police say telecommunications companies and other service providers — such as banks and rental companies — now demand court approval for nearly all types of requests from authorities for basic identifying information.

The Supreme Court judgment came amid mounting public concern about authorities quietly gaining access to customer data with little oversight or independent scrutiny.

Paulson said after his speech that he advocates giving police ready access to basic subscriber information while respecting the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

'We've been consistent'

"I think we've been consistent in recognizing that we are very respectful of the charter and people's charter rights and nobody is recommending that we go any further," he said. "But there needs to be some sort of administrative access to basic subscriber information."

The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police revealed in August that government officials were mulling just such a scheme — though it's not clear exactly how it would square with the court ruling.

The chiefs said a discussion paper spearheaded by the Department of Justice was presented to the federal, provincial and territorial cybercrime working group of senior officials.

The paper outlined three legislative options for allowing access to basic subscriber information:

  • An administrative scheme that would not involve court approval.
  • A new judicial order process or a tweak to the existing regime.
  • A judicial order process for subscriber information with a greater expectation of privacy and an administrative, non-judicial one for less sensitive subscriber data.

Paulson said while the Internet is a marvellous boon to communication, education and commerce, it is also a place where a vast array of crime takes place, including rampant sexual abuse of youngsters.

Time for a public conversation

Children are "being hurt at a pace and a frequency that is alarming," the commissioner said.

"Technology is fuelling that. So now these people can encrypt their communications and they can exploit children for sexual purposes and it's a little harder to get at them from a police point of view."

Many people want the Internet to be completely free, without rules, Paulson noted. "That's fine if we don't want justice
there."

It's time for a public conversation about how best to prevent all kinds of exploitation in cyberspace, he said.

Allies in the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand are confronting the same issues, Paulson added.

"We're all struggling with this. It's hard to keep people safe on the internet right now."