Inside Politics

Paying for our own surveillance

There's no way of knowing how much Bill C-30, colloquially known as the online snooping bill, will cost taxpayers, or boost monthly home internet and phone fees.

For the internet service providers, the toll it will take on their bottom line could be significant, because of the investment in equipment needed to allow real-time interceptions of online conversations or for preserving huge amounts of data.

"Even for my own small business, I think it would be tens of thousands of dollars. One of the things that jumped out at me (in the bill) is that the minister 'may' compensate us, not 'should' or 'will,' but 'may,'" says Tom Copeland, president of, a small internet provider with 3,500 customers.

Copeland says that ISPs won't be able to estimate the costs until the regublog-toews-nicholson-021341.jpglations for bill C-30 are written, possibly as long as a year away.

The costs could be huge, says Christopher Parsons, an internet writer and blogger, who's written about lawful access in the U.S. He says the U.S. Congress set aside $500 million dollars to compensate ISPs and mobile providers for equipping their networks with real-time surveillance capability. But was years ago, he says, and the upgrades aren't complete yet; the industry there is ballparking between $1.3 to $1.7 billion as the true cost.

The one area where the government has promised to pick up the tab is the ISPs' costs to comply with each request for subscriber data or an actual intercept.

What that means, says Parsons, is that the intercept business can become a cash cow for the big ISPs.

"In the U.S., interceptions have become a business model, so there are cases where large telecommunications companies have set up entire branches where 200 employees sit in a room, and all they do is assist law enforcement with interception and monitor requests, but they make money on every request that comes in."

In other words, he says, the government is paying private companies to spy.

But being paid for subscriber data requests wouldn't provide much revenue for a small enterprise like his, says Copeland, who is also Chair of the Canadian Association of Internet Providers. In 17 years, he's had one request from police.

"If we're being compensated on a per request basis, I may never be compensated for that investment in storage and wiretapping equipment."

Copeland adds that the request by police for subscriber data never came to fruition anyway. "I had a call from the local police asking if I could provide the information. I said I could but I would simply need a letter signed off by the officer and the chief, requesting it. I was told I'd have it in 20 minutes and it never arrived."

Under the new bill, Copeland would have no choice but to hand over the information. But, Copeland points out, the RCMP is supposed to pay the costs for phone wiretaps and phone companies often wait and wait for their bills to be paid.  

It's hard to guess how often the police and CSIS will use the powers in the bill if it passes in its present form. Parsons estimates there will be hundreds of requests per day, because the information police can obtain without a warrant -- customer name, address, email. IP address -- is incredibly useful.

"If you (the customer) use various pseudonyms, that can be plugged in as well. So not only does that identify an individual, but who they're talking with, where they're talking, how often they're talking -- so who are the important individuals in that (online) community can be identified."

And he says, it's not just Rogers and Bell who'll be at the receiving end of the requests.

"We're talking Skype, we're talking web forums, it's a huge catchall -- Facebook, Google, all of them. Facebook provides all the services that a TSP would: there's chat, the wall post... If you provide a communications service to the public in some sense, then you will be captured by this bill."

So who will pay? The public will pay, says Parsons, one way or another.

"They'll pay for it when Rogers sends them a bill or they'll pay through their taxes ... Canadians will pay."

Hear an interview with Tom Copeland on CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning:
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Image: Public Safety Minister Vic Toews and Justice Minister Rob Nicholson introduce bill C-30 in Ottawa, Feb. 14. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)
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