NNSL Photo/Graphic

Canadian North

Home page text size buttonsbigger textsmall textText size Email this articleE-mail this page

Internet bill 'scary stuff'
Privacy commissioner slams bill that would allow police to monitor web activity without warrant

Laura Busch
Northern News Services
Published Friday, February 24, 2012

The NWT's privacy watchdog is joining a growing chorus of opposition to a Conservative government bill that would allow police to monitor people's Internet usage without seeking a warrant first.

NNSL photo/graphic

Elaine Keenan-Bengts says that the proposed lawful access legislation would violate Canadians' right to privacy.

The "lawful access" bill tabled in the House of Commons Feb. 14 has sparked a rash of national news stories, trending Twitter feeds, and general public outcry regarding what many Canadians are viewing as an infringement on their right to privacy.

In the NWT, the bill is being opposed by the territory's information and privacy commissioner.

"It's really scary stuff," said Elaine Keenan-Bengts.

"There are certain things that everybody has the right to keep to themselves. The fact that I may have, for example, electronically transferred $5,000 to my RRSP this week is really nobody's business but mine."

Her main concern is that the legislation, titled Bill C-30, will give the RCMP and government the right to obtain personal information about Internet users without warrants or other means of judicial oversight.

"Potentially, RCMP or other agents of the federal government, and those are not defined, will have access to everything you do say or look at on the Internet whether or not you are suspected of any wrongdoing or criminal activity," said Keenan-Bengts.

Keenan-Bengts says another red flag is that the legislation is written in a way that would allow for "function creep," where legislation is created for one purpose but its use is expanded to encompass other activities not considered or disclosed at the time of its approval.

"The function creep that might occur is probably the scariest thing about this legislation because there is no limits within this legislation on what it can be used for," said Keenan-Bengts.

"So, we need this now to track criminals, then we may need it to track who people support politically."

Another worrisome aspect of this bill is that it not only enables the RCMP to demand Internet users' information, but that the Internet provider would be prohibited from alerting the user that the inquiry had been made, said Keenan-Bengts.

"So, not only can the RCMP walk in and look at everything you have looked at on the Internet for the last two years without a warrant or even any cause to believe that you've been doing anything wrong, but nobody can tell you that it's happened."

Keenan-Bengts and other privacy commissioners from across the country were so concerned about the government's attempts to monitor online activity last year that they banded together to write an open letter to William Baker, the federal deputy minister of Public Safety, to protest the government's earlier attempts at legislation under Bill C-52, which died after the federal election call last spring.

Western Arctic MP Dennis Bevington echoed the privacy commissioner's concerns.

"I think the bill has come out and is very misguided. It's identified a problem that is not really a problem. I mean, police officers are capable of getting warrants to get personal information," he said.

"This bill opens up the potential for abuse by authority and as such I'm very worried about it."

He added that Internet service providers would also be on the hook for the cost of creating a system for gathering and storing their customers' Internet information, which would affect Northern ISPs more than their larger, southern counterparts, said Bevington.

"I think that economies of scale would work well for large service providers to put this equipment in place," he said. "When you have small service providers who have large costs already, and you're asking them to put in the same equipment for much less people, the costs would escalate quite dramatically."

In a written e-mail statement to Yellowknifer, Mike Patton, a communications officer for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, said the intention behind Bill C-30 is to combat online exploitation of minors while not interfering with Canadians' right to privacy.

"Canada's laws do not adequately protect against online child exploitation and other criminal activity," stated Patton.

"We want to fix our laws while striking the right balance when it comes to protecting privacy."

Bill C-30 is being sent to a parliamentary committee ahead of second reading for "a full examination of potential amendments to achieve the best protection for our children," stated Patton, adding the bill is subject to amendments.

E-mailWe welcome your opinions. Click here to e-mail a letter to the editor.