The Current

RCMP commissioner calls for greater police powers online

The police have opened their files to CBC News in an effort to show specific cases where they argue they need enhanced online surveillance and interception abilities. Canada's top cop acknowledges its not an easy ask but says it's necessary.
Top Mountie says proposals are about more than just expanding police powers. 1:01

Read story transcript

The RCMP says it's struggling to track down people suspected of criminal activity online — and that includes potential jihadi activity by suspected militants.

That's why the RCMP has offered the CBC and the Toronto Star an unprecedented look into some sensitive files hoping to make the case that new powers are in order.

CBC News investigative reporter Dave Seglins tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti more about the story.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Anna Maria Tremonti: So what tools are the RCMP looking for to help out with investigations online?

Dave Seglins: They're looking at four main policy proposals that they say need to be addressed. But the RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson's top priority is online subscriber information. 
RCMP Chief Supt. Jeff Adam says police need to do a better job explaining their investigative challenges to the public. (Patrick Doyle/the Toronto Star)

Commissioner Paulson says this is bare bones information that's crucial as the first building block to determine, do they need to do a further investigation?

AMT: Can't police already get that type of information?

DS: They can but they have to get a warrant. And that requirement is what Commissioner Paulson says is slowing down investigations.

He wants police to have warrantless access to this basic subscriber information. He says it's similar to a police officer running someone's driver's license — a basic, largely uncontroversial tool of policing.

AMT: But why does it have to be accessed without a warrant?

DS: For one thing police didn't need a warrant until 2014 and that's when the Supreme Court of Canada waded in, changed the rules. There was a child pornography case and in it they found that the police had violated the suspect's privacy rights when officers went and requested the subscriber information linked to an IP address. The court ruled that the request actually constitutes a search, and it required the warrant because ... when Canadians are online they have a reasonable expectation of privacy. And online we even think of that privacy almost like anonymity.

Harold O’Connell, RCMP director general in charge of national security investigations, says two major challenges for investigators are a lack of interception capabilities at the phone and internet companies and the suspects’ use of encryption. (Patrick Doyle/the Toronto Star)

AMT: So hasn't the court's decision decided the issue?

DS: Privacy advocates would say 'yeah' the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land, has ruled but the ruling actually leaves the door open slightly — it says 'absent a reasonable law'. So that means that the government could write a different law, giving police the right to ask for this subscriber information without a warrant — a different system for what would be considered administrative access. It could be overseen by a senior police officer but not a judge. And that's precisely what Commissioner Paulson is lobbying the prime minister's office to do.

For more on this story go to CBC News.

Listen to the full segment.

This segment was produced by The Current's John Chipman.