Hyer on the Hill – The return of the warrantless wiretap


Bruce Hyer MPTHUNDER BAY – Leaders Ledger – With technology advancing at a rapid pace, balancing security with the public’s privacy rights has become a real challenge. The Harper Government’s Bill C-30, which pushes for new Internet surveillance capabilities, caused a big backlash from the Canadian public – especially after people were told they either supported the bill or were ‘with the child pornographers’.

While the outcry caused Public Safety Minister Vic Towes to put the bill on ice in a special committee for the time being, he is “intent on proceeding” with it and we’re likely to see it come back in the next session of Parliament. The Harper Government claims the bill will help fight child pornography, identity theft and organized crime. Critics say it is an assault on privacy and skirts the rule of law.

Bill C-30 deals with the kind of information that can be obtained by Canadian police and the ways in which they can access it. Under it, police could compel Internet service providers (ISPs) to hand over the name, home address, phone number, Internet address and email of their customers without a warrant. Under current legislation, Internet user information can only be disclosed voluntarily by ISPs, or with a warrant.

But more disturbing parts of the bill permit the Minister of Public Safety to designate anyone as an “authority” to enforce the Act (not just police). Under section 34, this appointed person can then go to any ISP location, and watch internet traffic or review and make copies of any data he or she wishes. This could, for example, include political operatives. One wonders why such powers should be granted to those outside the police.

The legislation lets authorities gather private user information without a warrant under “exceptional circumstances,” which are not clearly defined. Christopher Parsons, an online surveillance expert at the University of Victoria, noted that the bill lacks specific language describing how and what data will be used, despite serious implications for the freedom of Canadians.

There is no evidence that the extraordinary powers granted under the bill are even necessary. Law enforcement has yet to present a convincing argument as to why current laws are insufficient. Statistics show that 95% of requests for information by police are already met voluntarily by ISPs. Canadians value their privacy. Rights to freedom from unreasonable search and seizure are enshrined in the Charter. Any breach of these crucial liberties must be fully justified before a law like this is passed.

The government claims that it has proposed this bill to address serious crimes only. Why, then, does the bill apply to all crimes, even very minor ones? And aren’t warrants already granted under our current law when serious crimes have been committed? This undefined legislation would permit the police or anyone the Conservative Minister appoints to go on fishing expeditions, looking into the private activities and emails of Canadians if they so choose: an open door to abuse.

C-30 won’t just cost Canada the presumption of innocence, it will also cost real money. ISPs would be required to install special equipment so that authorities can easily access and monitor Internet activity. This could cost hundreds of millions – and Canadian Internet users would have to foot the bill.
Our current Internet legislation was last updated in 1975, and is clearly outdated. Previous attempts to bring the law up to speed with technology failed because they didn’t protect basic civil liberties. This proposal has the same problem.

The government is asking Canadians to pay for a scheme that clearly infringes their rights. Rather than bring Bill C-30 back from Committee, it must be scrapped. Canadians deserve a better effort to balance their privacy and security than a 1984-style surveillance state. It comes down to this: if authorities have good reason to access the private information of Canadians, they should obtain a warrant.

Bruce Hyer, MP

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