The privacy watchdog is calling on federal authorities to keep better track of informal requests to telecommunications companies for subscriber data after finding shoddy record-keeping at the RCMP.

In his annual report tabled Thursday, privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien said shortcomings in the RCMP's information management systems meant he was unable to tell whether proper controls were in place.

It was impossible to determine how often the Mounties collected subscriber data without a warrant, Therrien said.

As a result, his office could not assess whether such requests were justified.

Privacy and civil liberties advocates have raised concerns about the ability of police and intelligence agencies to gain access to details of the public's online activities — particularly given revelations about widespread surveillance by government agencies to help fight terrorism.

People understand that law-enforcement and national security agencies have legitimate need to collect personal details, Therrien said Thursday.

Canadians 'want and deserve' clearer picture on use of data

"Transparency is critical to accountability and will help to increase trust," he said in a statement.

"Canadians want and deserve to have a clearer picture of how, when and why federal institutions are collecting personal information."

The Mounties have agreed to bring in a system to monitor and report on warrantless requests for information.

Therrien wants other federal agencies that ask telecommunications firms for customer data to do the same.

In addition, he underscored the need for federal departments to ensure all requests for subscriber data respect a recent landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision.

Therrien says the high court clearly stated that government agencies must have a judge's approval to obtain subscriber data linked to anonymous online activities — unless there are emergency circumstances or legislation permitting access.

Metadata, border exit controls

Other findings in the report:

  • Metadata, the digital trail documenting when and how a message or call occurred, can be highly revealing, meaning organizations must be careful about collecting and disclosing such information.
  • The commissioner has concerns about federal plans to share data it will collect from Canadians when they leave the country.
  • For the third consecutive year, the number of data breaches voluntarily reported to the commissioner by federal institutions reached a record high.