Federal privacy law faces constitutional challenge

Privacy legislation that lets telecommunications providers hand over customers' personal information to the government without a warrant is being challenged in court by civil liberties advocates.

Telecom companies share customers' private data with the government without a warrant

Telecom companies refuse to say how often they hand over customer data to government agencies without a warrant. (Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press)

Privacy legislation that lets telecommunications providers and other companies hand over customers' personal information to the government without a warrant is being challenged in court.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association announced Wednesday it has filed an application with a private citizen named Chris Parsons in the Ontario Superior Court to have parts of the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) struck down and declared unconstitutional.

The act governs the collection and handling of personal information by the private sector in Canada.

The application follows recent revelations in the media that the government routinely accesses telecom customer data without a warrant.

In March, the Chronicle Herald newspaper in Halifax reported the Canada Border Services Agency alone accessed telecom customer data almost 19,000 times over one year — and without a warrant more than 99 per cent of the time.

Meanwhile, Canada's privacy commissioner reported in April that telecom companies are refusing to tell her office how many times they have handed customers' personal data to the federal government without a warrant.

In 2011, the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association said its members received a total of 1.2 million requests in one year, and disclosed information about 780,000 customers.

The civil liberties group acknowledges that law enforcement may need access to some personal information in specific circumstances, but says the current law is "too broad."

Cara Zwibel, a lawyer with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said the sheer scale of the disclosures concerns her group and makes it question the legitimacy of the requests.

"We know that there are implications for people when this kind of information gets shared, there's also a lack of transparency," she told CBC News in an interview.

Zwibel noted that people have trouble finding out from their telecom provider if government agencies have asked about them, and the government isn't clear about what it does with the information, including sharing with foreign governments. Meanwhile, some people find themselves on no-fly lists without knowing how or why. 

The challenge alleges that the sections of the law allowing warrantless disclosure of customer information violate parts of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guaranteeing the right to "life, liberty and security of the person" and the right to be "free from unreasonable search and seizure."

A court date has not yet been set to hear the challenge.


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