C-51: Crowdsourced report aims to stop Canada's slide into 'surveillance society'

With the government's controversial proposed anti-terror law set to be passed into law within weeks, some of Bill C-51's most outspoken critics are supporting a "pro-privacy action plan" that calls for an end to warrantless and mass surveillance and more independent oversight.

Canada at a 'tipping point,' privacy advocates warn

Hands are seen typing on a keyboard
OpenMedia and other privacy advocates and activists have released a crowdsourced 'pro-privacy action plan.' (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

With the government's controversial proposed anti-terror law set to be passed into law within weeks, some of Bill C-51's most outspoken critics are supporting a "pro-privacy action plan" that calls for an end to warrantless and mass surveillance and more independent oversight.

According to OpenMedia communications manager David Christopher, what he describes as "Canada's growing privacy deficit" has "alarming consequences for democracy."

"We're at a tipping point where we need to decide whether to continue evolving into a surveillance society, or whether to rein in the government's spying apparatus," he notes in the release accompanying the report.

"This report outlines common sense steps to strengthen privacy safeguards for all of us."

Privacy watchdog 'welcomes' report

The plan, released on Wednesday, identifies the "key privacy concerns" that Canadians want to see addressed, according to OpenMedia:

  • Warrantless access to personal information.
  • Widespread dragnet surveillance of entire populations.
  • Insufficient oversight and accountability of surveillance activities.

Among the suggested fixes: requiring that surveillance operations garner "judicial, not political authorization," put a stop to the collection and analysis of social media chatter and ask the parliamentary budget officer and auditor general to develop "clear cost projections for surveillance activities."

The report has garnered the endorsement of a diverse group of advocacy and activist groups from across the ideological spectrum, including PEN Canada, the Canadian Constitution Foundation, Greenpeace and the National Firearms Association.

And while he says that he hasn't yet had the chance to review its findings in detail, federal privacy watchdog Daniel Therrien "welcomes" the initiative.

"I believe it's extremely important for Canadians to be involved in the debate around government surveillance and the kind of country we want," he said in a written statement provided to CBC News.

Privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien told CBC News that he welcomes the initiative, and says many of the recommendations reflect those made by his office through the years. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"It's clear that Canadians care very deeply about privacy."

Not only does the commissioner "share many of the views expressed by participants in this project," but he notes that several of the proposed fixes "echo recommendations made by our office over the years," including "the importance of the court authorization process" and the push for more intense oversight.

"During the discussions around C-51, I called for increased oversight — something that's particularly important given the fact that many of the federal departments engaged in law enforcement and national security activities do not have dedicated oversight bodies," he added.

Crowdsourcing campaign

While the launch may have been timed to occur just before the bill is expected to be fast-tracked through the Senate, the project was underway well before the contentious C-51 was tabled last January.

"By mid-2014 it was clear that Canada faced a widening privacy deficit, solutions to which needed to be identified," the report notes, which was what led OpenMedia to initiate its "citizen-driven" crowdsourcing campaign.

Last fall, the group unveiled a simple drag-and-drop form that invited participants to rank their personal privacy priorities.

It also provided them with the option to complete a more extensive questionnaire that solicited their views on specific issues, such as police monitoring of peaceful protesters and different oversight models.

Over 10,000 Canadians took them up on the offer, according to the report, which notes that more than 500 — or 5.6 per cent — of those who did so also provided "detailed comments" by using the open-ended feedback field.

The group also held "in-person crowdsourcing events" in Vancouver, Montreal and Halifax between October 2014 and January 2015, and a "Facebook Town Hall" that reached "over 46,000 people" — including, the report notes, New Democrat digital issues critic Charmaine Borg, who took part in the discussion.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair spoke at the Montreal rally against the government's proposed anti-terror bill on March 15, 2015. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Contacted by CBC News, Borg said the survey reflects what she's been hearing from her constituents, and from the privacy community in general.

NDP to talk privacy on campaign trail

"What the government has done is clearly not enough," she told CBC News — and the report's recommendations "are very much needed."

The NDP has been at the political forefront of political opposition to C-51, voting against it at every stage in the House of Commons and even forcing the government to back down on its initial plan to fast-track it through committee in just four days.

"We've definitely been trying to keep this on the forefront," Borg said.

And given how many Canadians see privacy as a top priority, she's hopeful that it may become an election issue this fall.

The Liberals, on the other hand, have consistently voted alongside the Conservatives in support of the bill while simultaneously pledging to repeal the more problematic aspects under a Justin Trudeau-led government.

Liberal democratic reform critic Scott Simms said he, too, welcomes the report, and looks forward to reviewing it.

"Dialogue and discourse are integral to civil society in Canadian democracy," he said via email.

A spokesman for Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney told CBC News the government takes the privacy of Canadians "very seriously."

"Canada's police forces follow strict rules and make requests for customer data in full accordance with the law," Jeremy Laurin said in an email sent Wednesday evening.

"Public Safety Canada releases comprehensive statistics related to lawful interception of communications in its annual report on the use of electronic surveillance," Laurin added.

The bill currently stands referred to the Senate national security committee, which has already conducted a pre-study of the contents before its arrival in the upper house.

As a result, it could be up for final parliamentary approval by the end of the month.


  • A previous version of this story referred to David Christopher as president of OpenMedia. He is the communications manager.
    May 20, 2015 4:48 PM ET