Bill C-51: Privacy watchdog Daniel Therrien blocked from committee witness list

The Commons public safety committee isn't planning to give the federal privacy watchdog the opportunity to share his concerns publicly with MPs over sweeping new information-sharing powers.

Conservatives rebuff NDP attempt to add privacy commissioner to committee witness panel

Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien provided a written submission to the Commons committee reviewing the new anti-terrorism legislation, but efforts to add him to the witness list were blocked by Conservative committee members. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The Commons public safety committee isn't planning to give the federal privacy watchdog the opportunity to share his concerns publicly with MPs over sweeping new information-sharing powers that would be given to national security agencies under the government's proposed anti-terror bill.

"At this point, we have not been invited," a spokeswoman for Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien told CBC News Wednesday.

"The commissioner has said that, given the significant implications for privacy, he would welcome an opportunity to appear to discuss his submission in more detail with committee members," Valerie Lawton said.

"He remains hopeful that the committee will be able to hear from him."

It's not clear how Therrien was left off the final witness list, as the selection process takes place behind closed doors. His name was near the top of the proposed witness lists provided to CBC News by the New Democrats and the Liberals.

Tories block bid to add Therrien

During Tuesday's meeting, New Democrat MP Randall Garrison attempted to get unanimous consent for a motion to add a one-hour session with Therrien to the meeting schedule, but he was rebuffed by the Conservatives.

Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney stated, in response to a question, that his office had "consulted" with the commissioner on the bill. The minister said he intends to meet with Therrien.

"As you know, this bill is about the protection of the rights and freedoms of Canadians and their privacy," he said.

"There are embedded mechanisms in Bill C-51 and already within government, such as the privacy impact assessment, that will apply to the measures planned in this bill."

But according to Therrien's office, while he was "informed" of the bill in advance, he was not consulted.

"A few weeks before Bill C-51 was tabled, he met with public safety officials and was informed in very general terms about a plan to introduce legislation to enhance information-sharing for national security purposes," Lawton told CBC News on Thursday. 

Therrien did not see the contents of the bill before it was introduced in the House, she said — and though he "expressed certain views, [he] ultimately did not see those views reflected in the bill that was tabled."

During a raucous session of question period on Thursday, Blaney told the House that he had met with Therrien on Wednesday.

"We have the intention to continue a constructive dialogue to ensure this bill, while protecting the rights and freedoms of Canadians, is an effective tool to protect the world against the terrorist threats," Blaney said. 

Therrien's office confirmed the meeting had taken place.

"[He] appreciated the opportunity to express his concerns about the bill to the minister," Lawton told CBC News. 

"As you know, the commissioner has recommended a number of amendments to Bill C-51 and we hope the government will consider those."

Language 'extremely broad'

In the meantime, however, committee members will be able to peruse the written commentary submitted by Therrien last week, in which he delivers a starkly worded warning on the implications for privacy rights:

"While the potential to know virtually everything about everyone may well identify some new threats, the loss of privacy is clearly excessive," he writes.

"All Canadians would be caught in this web."

In his submission, Therrien explains how the bill could give as many as 17 federal departments and agencies access to every bit of data, personal and otherwise, that any department might hold on Canadians.

The language used to establish those new powers is "extremely broad," he notes, before offering several examples of how the new provisions could affect all Canadians, not just those suspected of harbouring terrorist ambitions, or even sympathies.

"For instance, all the tax information held by the Canada Revenue Agency, which historically has been highly protected information, would be broadly available if deemed relevant to the detection of new security threats," he warns.

"As well, all information that departments hold about young persons that was obtained for a specific purpose could be further shared with these 17 departments and data-mined with a view to identifying those at risk of being radicalized. "

And the Canada Border Services Agency "could be asked to provide information on all individuals, including tourists and business persons, who have travelled to countries that are suspected of being transit points to conflict areas."

'Virtually limitless powers'

The result, he says, would be to give the 17 government institutions currently involved in national security "virtually limitless powers to monitor and, with the assistance of big data analytics, to profile ordinary Canadians, with a view to identifying security threats among them."

The submission includes several recommended amendments, including raising the threshold required to trigger the new sharing powers, imposing strict new retention limits on the data.

Therrien also adds his voice to the chorus calling for a more vigorous oversight regime, and backs the idea of giving parliamentarians a central role in ensuring "independent and effective review."

While Therrien may not have made the committee short list, some of his concerns were put forward by other witnesses on Thursday morning. 

Describing the bill as "fundamentally flawed," BC Civil Liberties Association lawyer Carmen Cheung warned that the "radical conception of security" being contemplated would authorize "warrantless information sharing across government" — and even, potentially, beyond.

Such "massive data collection and information sharing may not benefit security," she added.