Online privacy erosion dismays critics

Government and law enforcement access to people's electronic communications is the norm in dictatorships around the world, but the same intrusion appears to be creeping into North America, say opponents of a new online surveillance bill tabled in the House Tuesday.
An ad from illustrates privacy concerns over the government's new online surveillance bill tabled Tuesday in the House. (

Government and law enforcement access to people’s electronic communications is the norm in dictatorships around the world, but the same intrusion appears to be creeping into North America, say opponents of a new online surveillance bill tabled in the House Tuesday.

During Iran’s Green Revolution of 2011, for example, the country’s Revolutionary Guard effectively monitored cellphone traffic and activity on social media such as Twitter and Facebook to identify anti-government protest ringleaders and arrest them, said Ron Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

Under the new bill:

  • Police and national security agencies could get basic subscriber information including a subscriber's name, address, telephone number, email address, internet protocol address and local service provider identifier without a warrant.
  • Warrants would then be required to track online activity in detail.
  • Internet providers and other makers of technology would have to provide a "back door" to make communications available to police.
  • Internet service providers and cellphone providers would have to provide information quickly to police in emergencies and to keep digital records of subscribers for 90 days.
  • Telecommunications service providers will have 18 months to buy equipment that would allow police to intercept communications.
  • The definition of hate propaganda will include communication targeting sex, age and gender.

He cites other, more extreme examples, where governments have completely shut down their countries’ internet to exert control and quell opposition, including in Egypt last year, Burma in 2007 and Nepal in 2005.

"Cyberspace, the whole communications ecosystem we live in, has really become a domain equal in importance to air, sea, land and space, except that it’s an artificial domain. It’s something we created and we depend on for commerce, for social networking, for communicating the exchange of ideas," Deibert said in an interview with CBC Radio’s Spark.

"It’s a very fragile ecosystem, even though we take it for granted. Just because it’s open now, doesn’t mean it will always be that way. In fact, the trend we see is an enclosure occurring and … it’s escalating."

In another example, U.S. government agencies hope to develop software that can mine social media to predict everything from terrorist attacks to foreign uprisings.

Hundreds of intelligence analysts already sift overseas Twitter and Facebook posts to track events such as the Arab Spring. But the FBI recently asked contractors to submit bids to design a digital tool to scan the entire universe of social media — more data than humans could ever crunch.

The U.S. Department of Defence and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence also have solicited the private sector for ways to automate the process of identifying emerging threats and upheavals using the billions of posts people around the world share every day.

"Social media has emerged to be the first instance of communication about a crisis, trumping traditional first responders that included police, firefighters, EMT, and journalists,’’ the FBI wrote in its request. "Social media is rivalling 911 services in crisis response and reporting.’’

The proposals already have raised privacy concerns among advocates who worry that such monitoring could have a chilling effect on users.

U.S. top court rules on GPS surveillance

Even if Canada's proposed online surveillance bill passes as expected, it will be challenged as unconstitutional in the courts, as happened in a related U.S. case last month, said Nathalie Des Rosiers, general counsel with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in January that police have to get a search warrant before using GPS technology to track criminal suspects.

The case involved police installing a GPS device on a Washington, D.C., nightclub owner’s car, which helped them link him to a suburban house used to stash money and drugs. He was sentenced to life in prison before the appeals court overturned the conviction.

Attaching the device to the car without a warrant "encroached on a protected area," and therefore was a trespass and an illegal search, wrote Justice Antonin Scalia.

All nine justices agreed that the GPS monitoring violated protections in the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution against unreasonable search and seizure.

The decision was seen as a defeat for the government and police agencies, which increasingly rely on high-tech surveillance of suspects, while the American Civil Liberties Union heralded it as an "important victory for privacy."

In Canada, the government's online surveillance bill will be challenged on the basis that it violates Section 8 of the charter, which protects against unlawful search and seizure, said Micheal Vonn of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.

"[But] we don't want to wait for the courts to assess this, because part of the bill is to build in surveillance infrastructure into telecommunications. That's going to be very difficult to turn around. We need to have this discussion up front before the damage is done to the actual system."

Proponents counter that the bill seeks access to information that is already readily available in a phone book, and if you haven’t done anything wrong, you should have nothing to fear with the new bill.

However, civil libertarians and opposition parties say it will give police unprecedented powers to access private online information without a warrant.

"The IP address is essentially a key to map your activities on the internet, things that you might do anonymously, so the idea that this is completely innocuous is problematic," said Vonn.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government is framing its bill — the 'protecting children from internet predators act" — as necessary to safeguard public safety, particularly children, in the modern age.

"The technology available today makes various crimes such as distributing child pornography easier to commit and harder to investigate," said Justice Minister Rob Nicholson.

"Simply put, criminals have moved beyond 20th-century technology, we need to ensure that law enforcement have the tools necessary to fight crime in the 21st century."

Bill undersells good police work, expert says

Cyber security experts say the bill, which is based on a culture of suspicion, actually undermines police and is akin to "using a baseball bat to kill a fly."

"Most people are pretty clean, decent, and honest on the internet. Most people are not doing the kind of things they are talking about, yet everybody potentially could be touched by this," Thomas Keenan of the University of Calgary. told CBC News in an interview Tuesday.

The bill undersells the police who are already doing a good job and may have the unintended result of making them lazy, he said. "If they want the evidence and have the  warrants, they can go get it now. We don’t want them sitting back to do a fishing expedition, and I can tell you that is going to happen."

Internet service providers stand to gain from the new bill, Keenan added.

"This is shifting everything over to the internet providers and they’re not going to do this for free. We will pay somehow, either on the internet bills, or if the justice agencies are paying the providers, it could be more business for them."

With files from The Associated Press