Investigates·CBC Investigates

Canadians want judicial oversight of any new digital snooping powers for police: Poll

Most Canadians feel strongly about their right to privacy online, but a new poll shows the vast majority are willing to grant police new powers to track suspects in the digital realm — so long as the courts oversee the cops.

CBC News/Toronto Star survey finds many willing to sacrifice some privacy under certain conditions

Police across the country say they need new powers to collect digital evidence. But a new Abacus Data survey found many Canadians would want judicial oversight of any new investigative capabilities. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Police, Power and Privacy is a special five-part investigative series that looks at why police across the country want new powers to track tech-savvy suspects, and why privacy advocates say they should be denied.

Most Canadians feel strongly about their right to privacy online, but a new poll shows the vast majority are willing to grant police new powers to track suspects in the digital realm — so long as the courts oversee the cops.

Nearly half of the respondents to an Abacus Data survey of 2,500 Canadians agreed that citizens should have a right to complete digital privacy. But many appeared to change their mind when asked if an individual suspected of committing a serious crime should have the same right to keep their identity hidden from police.

"The vast majority of Canadians … are willing to accept certain conditions … if it means that public safety is put first and their own families or personal safety is protected because police and intelligence agencies have these tools," Abacus CEO David Coletto said.

"When a judge is involved, when a warrant is needed, we find broad support. It's only when you take away that judicial oversight that you see a much more divided population."

The survey, conducted on behalf of CBC News and the Toronto Star, asked Canadians about their views on three specific proposals to expand police powers, which are raised in a federal discussion paper that's part of a review of Canada's Anti-Terrorism Act.​

Police across the country say they need expanded powers to track crime suspects and national security threats who use encryption and other high-tech tricks to hide their digital tracks.

RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson put it this way:

"If you've got a complaint of criminality on the internet, you're going to have to think about where you go with that complaint because I don't know that we can help you. And that's a terrible thing for a person who's in charge of a police force to say when citizens, when companies, when corporate Canada, or indeed the government comes to us and says, 'Hey, we've been victimized on the internet.'"

Passwords and encryption codes

Respondents were evenly split on whether police should be able to demand suspects or witnesses hand over passwords or codes to unlock devices and encrypted data.

But support for granting police this authority increased to 77 per cent if a judge is required to first approve a warrant.

​Phone and internet user data

Less than half of respondents agreed communications providers should be forced to keep text, email, phone and internet records for two years to assist potential criminal investigations.

But support jumped to 66 per cent if access to the stored information is protected and police would need a judge's order before accessing a suspect's records.

"Under the right conditions, there is broad support for this across political lines, across gender and even across generation," Coletto said.

Paulson says access to this information is crucial.

"That's a very important data set that we would only access with a warrant, but it has to be there," the top Mountie told CBC News and the Toronto Star. "Because there's nothing worse than trying to go and recreate somebody's movements through cell sites or to deduce who the offender is and the data's all been destroyed."

Easy access to subscriber info

Opposition was strongest to the third proposed new power for police: access to basic subscriber information (such as a user's name and IP address) without authorization from a judge.

Most respondents (78 per cent) said police should need judicial approval to ask a communications company for a person's basic digital identity, and only 35 per cent said they'd support a system where a senior police officer or prosecutor could sign off.

Police used to request subscriber information hundreds of thousands of times a year, but that changed in 2014, when the Supreme Court ruled that in the absence of a specific law, police requests to phone and internet companies amount to a search and therefore require a warrant.

Police compare it to looking up licence plate information, which doesn't require permission from a judge.

Plus, Paulson says, Canada lags behind its allies the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and the U.K., which allow senior police officers or prosecutors to oversee the requests.

'I can safely say that there's criminal activity going on every day that's facilitated by technology that we aren't acting on,' RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson told CBC and the Toronto Star. (Patrick Doyle/the Toronto Star)

But again, Coletto says, judicial oversight is clearly important to Canadians.

"Even when we give both sides of the argument, we find Canadians are more likely to oppose a new law that would give police that authority or administrative authorization than those that would support it."

  Abacus Data surveyed 1,500 Canadians in October, before two major news stories broke about privacy and authority. The first found  CSIS had violated court orders and the other revealed Montreal police got approval from a justice of the peace to track the  cellphones of six journalists.

  CBC and the Toronto Star had Abacus survey another 1,000 Canadians after the stories made headlines.

  Coletto says the overall results remained identical, but he cautions the stories could still affect public trust.

"Awareness of these stories has not reached a saturation point," he said.

  "Support for expanding powers is tied to judicial oversight. If these organizations don't follow the court orders, then we might see public acceptance of expanded powers deteriorate."

Abacus Data surveyed 1,500 Canadians in October, and another 1,000 in November. The survey has a margin of error of 2.2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.


Dave Seglins and Chelsea Gomez are journalists with the CBC News Investigative Unit in Toronto. They partnered with Robert Cribb, investigative journalist at the Toronto Star, to examine the growing digital challenges in police investigations and proposals to change laws affecting the privacy of Canadians. and