Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Clip power to snoop

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JUST how much unfettered power should Canada's police forces and other agencies have to snoop into our private lives? A lot more, in the eyes of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's recklessly misguided Conservative government.

This government spared no rhetoric invoking privacy concerns to justify its decision to do away with the national long-gun registry and long-form census. But now Harper is pushing through Parliament three contested pieces of legislation that add up to a far bigger assault on privacy -- under the guise of "updating" digital data laws, cracking down on cyberbullying and fighting tax crime. It's Tory law-and-order ideology run amok.

As the Star's Bruce Campion-Smith reports, the New Democrats are sounding the alarm, saying Canadians are losing their right to privacy as "widespread snooping" gains ground. They want Harper to set up a blue-ribbon panel of experts in law, privacy and security to take a look at just what information is being gathered without a court order, who is collecting it and whom they are sharing it with. The NDP also wants to know whether this widespread snooping is justified and whether there is adequate disclosure when it occurs.

These are reasonable requests. Canadians deserve an expert accounting of how often their personal information is being traded around, and why, and what safeguards ought to be in place to prevent abuse. If the Conservatives don't agree to set up an expert panel, the New Democrats and Liberals should team up to convoke one of their own. The issue is that pressing. We need to know where this trend is taking us.

As the Star reported last month, government agencies are asking telecoms, Internet and social-media companies to turn over Canadians' user data at jaw-dropping rates, making nearly 1.2 million requests in 2011, not always with court orders. Privacy experts call it staggering in scale.

Credible voices are sounding the alarm. Interim federal Privacy Commissioner Chantal Bernier has warned government is collecting personal information "without regard for accuracy, currency and accountability." This week Ontario Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian warned the cyberbullying bill "will chip away" at our charter right to be secure against unreasonable search and seizure. Earlier this month, legal experts, civil libertarians and academics issued the Ottawa Statement on Mass Surveillance in Canada, calling for a halt to the extension of warrantless searches.

Critics point out Bill C-13, the cyberbullying legislation, grants absolute immunity from civil and criminal liability to telecommunications companies or other actors that voluntarily provide police with customers' private information, without a court order. While the government contends this merely codifies existing practices, it will encourage more warrantless requests, at a time when many companies worry about antagonizing police and other agencies if they are seen as overly protective of customers' privacy. Critics also note Bill S-4, the digital privacy act, will let telecoms and Internet companies disclose personal information without consent and without a court order to police or any other agency that is investigating a possible crime or breach of contract, past, present or even anticipated. That's a mighty wide net.

And they point out Bill C-31, the omnibus budget bill, will allow the Canada Revenue Agency to voluntarily give police taxpayer information without a judicial warrant or charge being laid, if there are reasonable grounds to believe the information is evidence of a crime. That is to say, on suspicion.

Canadians shouldn't be left in the dark when their personal information is passed around willy-nilly, without judicial oversight, transparency or accountability. The government ought to be able to crack down on bullying, update digital laws and fight tax crime without resorting to draconian practices that threaten charter rights. Parliament should see it does. It's time to take a hard look at what's going on without our knowledge or consent.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 5, 2014 A13

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