Bell Canada tried to quell rising criticism of the telecom industry's privacy practices Wednesday, telling CBC News that it provides only "basic" customer information like names and addresses to law enforcement agencies seeking information without a warrant.
Canada's interim privacy commissioner revealed Tuesday that nine telecommunication companies got a total average of 1,193,630 requests from federal enforcement bodies for private customer information every year.
Chantal Bernier told a Senate committee that she would like federal privacy laws changed so that service providers have to break out statistics to give Canadians an idea of how many requests they comply with.
The news raised concerns about what kind of information was being shared and with whom, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper telling MPs in question period that it would go to the RCMP, Canada Border Services Agency and other independent investigative agencies.
In an email to CBC News, a spokesman for Bell said the company shares only "411-style" details without a warrant.
"Bell will only provide law enforcement and other authorized agencies with basic 411-style customer information such as name and address, which is defined as non-confidential and regulated by the CRTC," Mark Langton said in an email.
"Any further information, or anything related to an unlisted number, requires a court order," he added.
It's not immediately clear whether that includes land-line phone listings, cellphone listings or both.
The privacy commissioner's request dates back to 2011.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said it will be hard for the federal government to justify the approximately 1.2 million requests for private information from telecommunications companies.
"It’s an abomination. This is a basic right in our society," Mulcair said, speaking to reporters after the NDP's morning caucus meeting.
"Think of that as a proportion. How can that possibly be justified?"
The law allows Canadian telecom companies and internet providers to hand over customer information without a court order to help law-enforcement investigations.
While Mulcair criticized the Conservatives for the requests, Harper said the government isn't involved in the investigations at issue.
"Telecommunications companies obviously do co-operate with law enforcement and other authorities from time to time in various investigations and surveillance," Harper said in question period.
"When information is required to be handed over according to a warrant, our law enforcement agencies do that and ... there is independent oversight to ensure that is done."
Consequences for privacy
It's not clear how many of an estimated 35 million Canadians are swept up in the approximately 1.2 million requests, but Mulcair called it a massive privacy invasion.
Harper and Industry Minister James Moore referred in question period to legislation in front of Parliament to update federal privacy laws, which they said are 10 years old.
But Liberal Justice Critic Sean Casey is raising concerns about those bills, S-4 and C-13.
In a letter to Bernier earlier this week, Casey said Bill S-4 would make "specific changes to the powers of the privacy commissioner."
"I am concerned about the consequences this legislation might have on Canada's privacy regime," Casey wrote in the April 28 letter.
Casey said Bill C-13 would change "several provisions of the Criminal Code allowing for the obtaining of metadata and other information," and asked for Bernier's assessment of the bills.
Moore said Bill S-4 "further protects the privacy of Canadians."
"We put forward the digital privacy act, consulted with the privacy commissioner beforehand, spoke with her all throughout the process and have put forward legislation that she endorses that ... will protect the privacy rights of Canadians," he said.
Conservative MP Daryl Kramp, who chairs the public safety committee, said he has never heard that anyone is concerned about the information being provided.
"If there was a serious concern, quite frankly, I’d certainly expect the privacy commissioner would have approached us," Kramp said.
"Quite frankly now, I think you’re fearmongering and scaremongering yourself ... A million times? Like, show me. Show me."
He said it's a hypothetical question to ask whether Canadians should be told if their personal information is released to the government by their cellphone providers or others.
"You should know better than to ask a question like that. Because [it would be] based on what? To what degree of danger? What degree of fear? What degree of challenge? What degree of potential security? What degree of human impact could that have? There’s a whole variety and it’s not a simple black and white, [clear-]cut issue."
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said it's "extremely disconcerting" to see so many unanswered questions and said he wants an inquiry if the government can't clearly answer those questions.
"How many times exactly did the government ask for personal information? What were they asking for? What did they receive? Why were they asking for this information? — these are all questions we have no answers to," he said.
Bernier said a past report from the privacy commissioner's office recommended updating federal privacy laws "to create an obligation for private entities to give statistics of the number of requests that they accede to without a warrant to give personal information."
She said she understands that in some cases, police can't wait until they have a warrant to request that information, such as when there's a risk to someone's life.
Ron Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, a research lab that monitors incursions into privacy and human rights through digital media, is puzzled at the muted reaction among Canadians over past revelations about government eavesdropping through telecom and digital media.
"We leave this digital exhaust everywhere around us that’s mostly in the hands of the private sector," Deibert said in an interview on CBC News Network's The Lang & O’Leary Exchange.
"So to what degree they share that information with government agencies, with the state, is I think the most important question for liberal democracy in the 21st century."
People remark that they have nothing to hide, so they are not worried, but this kind of surveillance can lead to serious infringement on people’s liberties, he said.
"If we don’t have proper oversight mechanisms to prevent the abuse of power, which is the situation we have today in Canada, we’ll never know whether that is going on."