Critics of a bill that would give law enforcement new powers to access Canadians' electronic communications are aligning themselves with child pornographers, Canada's public safety minister says.

"He can either stand with us or with the child pornographers," Vic Toews said of Liberal public safety critic Francis Scarpaleggia during question period on Monday, after Scarpaleggia asked about a bill expected to be tabled Tuesday.

'He can either stand with us or with the child pornographers.'—Vic Toews, Minister of Public Safety

The "Act to enact the Investigating and Preventing Criminal Electronic Communications Act and to amend the Criminal Code and other acts" appeared Monday on the parliamentary website that lists bills scheduled to be introduced.

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Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said the lawful access bills will 'bring our laws into the 21st century and provide police with the lawful tools we need.' (Canadian Press)

The bill is expected to contain provisions from previous similar bills that have raised the concerns of privacy watchdogs and consumer advocates. Those "lawful access" provisions would:

  • Require internet service providers to give subscriber data to police and national security agencies without a warrant, including names, unlisted phone numbers and IP addresses.
  • Force internet providers and other makers of technology to provide a "back door" to make communications accessible to police.
  • Allow police to get warrants to obtain information transmitted over the internet and data related to its transmission, including locations of individuals and transactions.
  • Allow courts to compel other parties to preserve electronic evidence.

Toews, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson and Senator Jean-Guy Dagenais are scheduled to make an announcement at 12:30 p.m. ET Tuesday that will likely be the introduction of the new bill.

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Scarpaleggia alleged during question period Monday that the government is "preparing to read Canadians' emails and track their movements through cellphone signals, in both cases without a warrant."

He questioned whether the government could be trusted with such "sweeping powers" and suggested they could be misused to intimidate Canadians gathering to protest issues such as a pipeline or pension cuts.

Toews responded that every province supports the bill and similar legislation was first introduced by the Liberal government when it was in power, before the Conservatives were elected.

 "As technology evolves, many criminal activities, such as the distribution of child pornography, become much easier," he added. "We are proposing … measures to bring our laws into the 21st century and provide police with the lawful tools we need."

He then went on to make the statement suggesting Scarpaleggia was aligning himself with child pornographers.

It's not the first time Toews has painted critics of lawful access as aiding the makers of child pornography, said Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa law professor who has raised his own concerns about lawful access.

On Twitter, Geist posted a link to a Feb. 3 tweet from Toews that read, "Lawful access will aid child porn investigations. I call on the NDP to stop making things easier for predators and support these measures." He also referred to a similar Toews remark on Nov. 15 that suggested opposition to lawful access amounted to support for both child porn and organized crime.

Anticipating the reintroduction of lawful access legislation, many privacy and consumer advocates and opposition politicians, including the federal, provincial and territorial privacy commissioners, have been speaking out and lobbying against the proposals recently.

Many have expressed particular concerns about the provision that would require internet service providers to hand police subscriber data without a warrant. While the Conservative government has likened this to information available from a phone book, critics say it could be used to get far more information about law-abiding citizens.

For example, Geist said it could indeed be used indirectly to track Canadians' movements through their cellphone signals as Scarpaleggia alleges. That's because technology exists to scan for the identification numbers of cellphones nearby, and subscriber data from wireless providers would be able to link those numbers to the names and addresses of individuals.

"All without court oversight," he added in an email.