Privacy pushback: 6 ways your rights could be threatened

Laws or government-sanctioned activities to thwart cyberbullying or data breaches on websites come cloaked in good intentions, but they often spark concerns that civil liberties and the right to privacy are threatened.

Laws and government-sanctioned activities could jeopardize civil liberties

Efforts to protect people online can sometimes lead to observers suggesting civil liberties and privacy are threatened. (Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press)

Government efforts to thwart cyberbullying or data breaches affecting those who shop online come cloaked in good intentions.

So do high-level national security efforts that are almost always billed as protecting the common good. 

But in all those efforts, laws or government-sanctioned activities often spark concerns about civil liberties and the right to privacy being threatened.

On Monday, the federal New Democrats called for a group of independent experts to investigate warrantless data collection by the federal government.

Here's a look at some recent legislation and other developments that have raised privacy concerns. 


The federal Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), updated in April 2011, governs how businesses collect and handle personal information in Canada.

Last week, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association said it has filed an application, with a private citizen named Chris Parsons, in Ontario Superior Court to have parts of PIPEDA struck down and declared unconstitutional.

The legal action came after media reports that branches of the federal government, including the Canada Border Services Agency, routinely accesses telecom customer data without a warrant, as PIPEDA allows.

Digital Privacy Act

Bill S-4, which would amend PIPEDA and is supposed to better protect Canadians from fraud and data breaches, has attracted the attention of University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist.

He has warned that it would also allow organizations to disclose personal information of subscribers or customers without a court order. 

Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian says the bill proposes to allow more warrantless disclosure of personal information by the private sector. 

"Absent sufficient transparency and accountability requirements, this type of unsupervised disclosure is dangerous to our fundamental right to privacy," she said in a recent statement.

"Of course, we deserve more transparency and accountability from the private sector on their disclosure practices, but we also deserve no less from law enforcement and government on how often and for what purposes they collect our personal information."

Conservative Senator Leo Housakos has said the bill would give Canadians new protections when they surf and shop online.

Internet advocates say the federal legislation could also put Canadians at risk in cases of alleged copyright infringement by opening them up to copyright "trolls," businesses that could acquire names and threaten costly lawsuits over improper downloads. 

Cybercrime bill

Cavoukian has also raised concerns about "overreaching surveillance powers" in Bill C-13, the federal government's proposed legislation to fight cybercrime.

Cavoukian says the legislation would entrench warrantless law enforcement practices.

Among other goals, the bill aims to make it a crime to distribute intimate images without the consent of the person in the pictures. Other provisions in the bill would allow police to force internet service providers to hand over customer information without a warrant.

CSEC activities at Canadian airports

Some privacy and internet experts were enraged in February after a federal watchdog exonerated Canada's electronic spy agency of using data from an airport internet service to track travellers after they left the terminal.

Cyber expert Ron Deibert said the ruling regarding the actions of Communications Security Establishment Canada made a "mockery of public accountability and oversight.”

The watchdog said CSEC was just collecting metadata in an effort "to understand global communications networks."

Telecoms under pressure

Interim privacy commissioner Chantal Bernier says telecom companies are refusing to tell her office how many times they have handed over personal customer information to the federal government without a warrant. (Canadian Press)

Canada's interim privacy commissioner has turned her attention to telecom companies and says they are refusing to tell her office how many times they have handed over personal customer information to the federal government without a warrant.

Chantal Bernier said last month that her office has repeatedly asked telecom companies to disclose statistics and the scope of warrantless disclosure of data, to no avail.

Bernier would like to see statistics published so Canadians know how often their personal information is given to the government without a warrant. 

"It would give a form of oversight by empowering citizens to see what the scope of the phenomenon is." 

NSA surveillance

Disclosures of top-secret security documents by Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the U.S. National Security Agency, set off a cascade of controversy and unleashed a privacy scandal that made headlines around the world.

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives made the first legislative response to the Snowden revelations, passing legislation that would end the NSA's bulk gathering of American phone records. The bill will now be considered by the U.S. Senate.

But privacy and civil liberties activists were not impressed.

"This legislation was designed to prohibit bulk collection, but has been made so weak that it fails to adequately protect against mass, untargeted collection of Americans' private information," Nuala O'Connor, president and CEO of the Centre for Democracy and Technology, said in a statement.

Several documents leaked by Snowden had Canadian ties, included the ones that revealed CSEC was using airport Wi-Fi to track passengers. Others stated that Canada allowed the U.S. to do surveillance in the country during the G8 and G20 summits in Ontario in 2010.

With files from Susana Mas, Greg Weston, Amber Hildebrandt, The Canadian Press, The Associated Press