Internet privacy experts raise concerns over crime bill

A group of experts in internet and privacy law want the government to study provisions of a promised omnibus crime bill they say could drastically affect Canadians' rights.
The Conservatives' crime bill would include provisions to allow easier monitoring of electronic communications without a warrant. (Reuters)

A group of experts in internet and privacy law want the government to study provisions they say could drastically affect Canadians' privacy rights.

The provisions, which critics call warrantless online spying, were included in three lawful access technical surveillance bills from the last parliamentary session, but are expected to be rolled into the omnibus crime bill the Conservatives plan to table this fall. The Conservative election platform promised to reintroduce the electronic surveillance provisions as part of the omnibus crime bill.

The provisions would give law enforcement agencies more power to take information from internet service providers and other private companies without a warrant, according to Open Media, a consumer watchdog group.

Open Media is asking that the provisions be properly examined by MPs and senators in committee before the bill gets passed. The Conservatives have promised to pass the omnibus bill within 100 days of Parliament's post-election return, which was June 2.

Open Media worries that won't be enough time when combined with all the other bills expected to be rolled together.

Tamir Israel, a staff lawyer at the University of Ottawa's Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, says the potential for surveillance online is much greater than it was in a pre-internet era. CIPPIC is one of several groups and individuals who signed an open letter  to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, which was distributed Tuesday along with a news release by Open Media.

Smartphones, for example, come with GPS devices that can be used to track a user's movements. Social networking sites make it easier to see who's connected.

"Everywhere we go, everything we do is recorded," Israel said. "It's becoming more the case with smartphones and facial recognition. We want to make sure that we're justifying that expansion [of law enforcement powers]."

"The overarching concern is its an erosion of civil liberties and online privacy with no real justification for it," he added.

The legislation proposed in the last session would allow police to get some information without a warrant and other information with something like a court order, but with a lower standard of proof, Israel said.

The group is also worried about a lack of oversight for the new powers.

Privacy safeguards

A spokesman for Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said while the law has to keep up with technology, there will be privacy safeguards in the bill.

"While technology has advanced rapidly in the past two decades, law enforcement and national security agencies have faced increased difficulty in protecting the safety and security of Canadians," Michael Aubie wrote in an email.

"Existing privacy safeguards in the Criminal Code will be maintained or enhanced under this legislation, including requirements for police to obtain prior authorization in the form of a judicial order or warrant. No information could be obtained by police without prior judicial authorization."

More details about the omnibus bill will be announced "in due course," he added.