Canadians 'reluctant' to accept new police powers, prefer privacy online, government finds

The findings are part of a report published by Public Safety, based on responses to the government's consultation on national security reform held last fall.

Findings are part of a report on responses to Public Safety's national security consultation last fall

Most Canadians who took part in national security consultations last year prefer protecting individual rights and freedoms rather than granting additional powers to national security agencies and law enforcement. (Jacy Schindel/CBC)

Last fall, the government asked Canadians to weigh in on the future of the country's national security legislation.

It was, in part, a response to outcry over elements of the controversial anti-terrorism Bill C-51, parts of which the Liberal government has promised to repeal.

On Friday, a report summarizing the results of the consultation was released, with one topic in particular drawing considerable attention: what sort of powers should law enforcement and intelligence agencies have when investigating crimes in the digital world?

Police have called for warrantless access to basic subscriber information, arguing that it is too difficult to obtain from telecom companies in a timely manner, and said that encrypted communications have made their investigations more difficult.

'Significant appetite for reform'

There have also long been calls for so-called lawful access legislation — a legal requirement that all telecommunications providers install interception equipment on their networks — and a requirement that phone and internet companies retain certain types of data to assist police in criminal investigations.

But it seems that Canadians — at least, those that participated in the government's consultation — generally disagree.

"Most participants in these Consultations have opted to err on the side of protecting individual rights and freedoms rather than granting additional powers to national security agencies and law enforcement, even with enhanced transparency and independent oversight," the report reads.

"The thrust of the report suggests that there's significant appetite for reform," said Craig Forcese, a law professor at the University of Ottawa who has written extensively on Bill C-51 — in particular, "a significant appetite for limiting state power in terms of the sorts of powers that security services have."

What did Canadians have to say?

The government received 58,933 responses through an online questionnaire, and another 17,862 via email — in addition to feedback from cross-country meetings with constituents, academics and expert groups.

The broad strokes of the report — in particular, the section on "investigative capabilities in a digital world" — are that many Canadians appear to be concerned with how recently proposed police powers would infringe upon their right to privacy and freedom of expression online.

Most online respondents and many experts and organizations "are reluctant to accept new powers and tools to enhance Canada's investigative capabilities in a digital world."

Of those who do support new powers, most "insisted there be additional oversight and transparency and more checks and balances."

In particular, "there was strong support among roundtable participants and online responses for a single, expert, independent, non-partisan body to oversee all of the government's national security activities."

Expectation of privacy in the digital world

Here's a look at some of the numbers:

  • Seventy per cent consider basic subscriber information — that is, metadata such as name, home address, phone number, and email address — to be as private as the content of their communications (law enforcement disagree).
  • Forty-eight per cent said basic subscriber information "should only be provided in 'limited circumstances' and with judicial approval" — similar to what is currently required.
  • Sixty-eight per cent believed that "law enforcement should operate the same in both the physical and the digital worlds" with regards to privacy rights, due process, and how warrants are granted and scrutinized.
  • More than 80 per cent of respondents believed that "the expectation of privacy in the digital world is the same as or higher than in the physical world."
  • Seventy-eight per cent opposed a law mandating telecom companies maintain interception capabilities.
  • Most of the online respondents and organizations consulted opposed implementing backdoors in encryption, while law enforcement believed they should have "the tools they need to access the communications of those who use secure communications technologies for criminal purposes".
  • Sixty-eight per cent opposed a legal requirement for telecom companies to retain user data.
  • Forty-four per cent were against giving law enforcement and intelligence agencies updated tools, while 41 per cent supported the idea given proper justification and oversight.

Anxiety over Liberal follow-through 

Forcese hopes to see the government first focus its efforts on reforming Bill C-51 — what he calls the "low-hanging fruit" — before moving to address lawful access and oversight.

"The Liberals promised to do this, and they've been in office for two years, and we're getting to a point where there's a certain amount of anxiety as to whether they're going to follow through," Forcese said. "So I think both technically and politically it would be advantageous to move forward with the cleanup first."


Matthew Braga

Senior Technology Reporter

Matthew Braga is the senior technology reporter for CBC News, where he covers stories about how data is collected, used, and shared. You can contact him via email at For particularly sensitive messages or documents, consider using Secure Drop, an anonymous, confidential system for sharing encrypted information with CBC News.