Cyberbullying bill surveillance powers alarm Ontario privacy watchdog

Ontario's privacy watchdog is sounding the alarm over surveillance-related provisions contained in Bill C-13, the federal government's legislation to protect Canadians from online crime.

Bill C-13 will entrench warrantless law enforcement practices, Ann Cavoukian warns

Ontario Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian is calling on the federal government to either withdraw or redraft most of the surveillance-related provisions contained in Bill C-13, legislation to protect Canadians from online crime. (Colin Perkel/Canadian Press)

Ann Cavoukian, Ontario's privacy watchdog, is sounding the alarm about "overreaching surveillance powers" contained in Bill C-13, the federal government's legislation to combat cybercrime.

In a sharply worded letter sent to Conservative MP Mike Wallace, the chair of the Commons justice committee currently studying Bill C-13, Cavoukian warns the government against beefing up police powers under the guise of protecting children from cyberbullying and other online crimes.

"The time for dressing up overreaching surveillance powers in the sheep-like clothing of sanctimony about the serious harms caused by child pornography and cyberbullying is long past," Cavoukian said in a letter dated May 16.

Under Bill C-13, legislation to protect Canadians from online crime, anyone who posts or transmits an "intimate image" of another individual without that person’s consent could face up to five years in prison. But a number of other measures included in the bill would give police greater powers, such as forcing internet service providers to hand over customer information without a warrant.

Cavoukian is calling on the federal government to "immediately" split Bill C-13 and only move ahead with sections 1 to 7, those provisions that would make it an offence to distribute "intimate images" without consent.

"The remaining surveillance-oriented provisions of Bill C-13 — some 46 of its 53 pages — should be withdrawn and redrafted," Cavoukian said.

'With us or against us' mentality

Ontario's privacy watchdog cited the recent testimony of Carol Todd, the mother of Amanda Todd, the teen who took her own life after being bullied online. The mother said "we should not have to choose between our privacy and our safety."

The government's suggestion that we have to choose between the two isn't true, Cavoukian said. Canadians "can have both."

"The trade-off being sold to us is grounded in false assumptions and needlessly risks our right to live in a free society."

Todd also urged the federal government to hive-off the more controversial provisions of the bill in order to pass the cyberbullying law more quickly.

While the opposition critics sided with Todd in favour of splitting the bill, Conservative MP Bob Dechert, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of justice, said last week the surveillance-related provisions in Bill C-13 are needed to update the Criminal Code.

"You have to get on one side of that line or another, you can't sit on the fence," Dechert said.

"Regrettably, the government's recalcitrant 'you're either with us or against us' mentality has contributed to the kind of zero-sum thinking that has produced bills like C-13 and its predecessor, Bill C-30," Cavoukian said.

The government dropped Bill C-30, the protecting children from internet predators act, after extensive public outrage over the bill and comments by the minister who was sponsoring it at the time. 

Then public safety minister Vic Toews said that critics "can either stand with us or with the child pornographers."

Warrantless practices 

Cavoukian points to a report by her federal counterpart as "clear evidence of the dangers inherent in this kind of mentality."

Canada's interim privacy commissioner Chantal Bernier revealed in April that nine telecommunication companies received approximately 1.2 million requests from federal law enforcement agencies for private customer information every year.

In other words, "the current law already allows for sweeping law enforcement surveillance practices without the necessary transparency or accountability requirements," Cavoukian said.

According to Cavoukian, "Bill C-13 will entrench and almost certainly encourage the expansion of these warrantless law enforcement practices."

In its current form, the cyberbullying bill "makes it crystal clear" that digital service providers who co-operate with law enforcement agencies will "enjoy absolute immunity" from criminal and civil liability.

American cross-border law enforcement officials and intelligence officials at CSEC and CSIS could be on the receiving end of information obtained without a court order, Cavoukian warned.

"Such sweeping immunity for such an undefined set of secret disclosures, to such a broad array of government officials, is nothing short of irresponsible."

Cavoukian is urging MPs sitting on the justice committee to stop "playing politics" over these issues.

"Canadians have a constitutional right to be secure from unreasonable search and seizure, including with respect to personal information held by third parties. The expansive surveillance proposals and the entrenchment of sweeping immunity for digital service providers bring this right into question."