I’ve been following OpenMedia.ca’s fight against warrantless online surveillance which I’m happy to report that has been pulled from the Canadian government’s omnibus crime bill C-52. The original provisions would make it mandatory for ISPs and search engines to track your online movements, including e-mail, and disclose the information to law enforcement without requiring a warrant if they deemed “intervention” is necessary. These powers were written with such a wide latitude that even the Federal government’s own Privacy Commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, wrote a letter to the Deputy Minister of Public Safety expressing her concerns over the matter and was signed by every Provincial Privacy Commissioner! If that’s not enough for you to take your privacy more seriously, I don’t know what will.
When discussing this issue with my friends and colleagues the argument always comes down to “if you are performing legitimate activities, you have nothing to worry about”, but giving governments free access to how you are using the Internet is exactly why you should be worried.
Your Personal Life is Personal
How would you feel if you knew that the police came into your house, put listening devices on your phone, copied your hard-drive and installed key-logging software on your computer? You’d be asking for the reason, your lawyer would be reviewing the warrant, and a judge would have had to approve the application; these checks and balances exists because these powers are easily subject to abuse by authorities. But this is exactly what the government of Canada was going to remove and provide law enforcement the ability to do this without judicial oversight – except instead of going into your home, they’re going to your ISP – the central point where you connect to the Internet and you would never even know they did it. For some reason, they consider the Internet a special class of communications medium that should be accessible whenever they deem necessary, but is it really different from how we communicated 50 years ago? Can the government access the physical mail that you send (i.e. your letter to Aunt Donna), whenever it wishes? Can your telephone be listened at the whims of police? Of course not – a warrant needs to be issued to ensure there is enough probable cause to authorize the action and the same standard should be used to obtain the records of your Internet usage. Before the Harper government even considers re-introducing these measures Canadians should be demanding from the MPs:
- Who can exercise the powers of warrantless internet surveillance?
- Who approves accessing the information (i.e. can any law enforcement official request the information)?
- What circumstances can the powers be enacted upon? Is it for cases of potential terrorism? Copyright Infringement?
- Is the data going to be shared with other government agencies and their agents (i.e. 3rd party data analysis companies)?
- How will the data be protected?
- What is the data retention policy for the data?
- As a citizen, how can I request if my data was ever examined without my knowledge?
Without these answers, the opportunities for abuse and an embarrassing slip up is enormous.
Your Private Information is the New Currency
My love of Justin Bieber is something I really don’t want my friends and relatives to know (of course I just blabbered it out to the world – Justin if you read this, can you send me some tickets?); can you imagine if I run for political office and all of a sudden my competitors are using this information as an example of poor judgement because the data that was previously collected was accidentally leaked? A more serious example is lawyer/client confidentiality; my name may have matched someone on a list and now the investigator knows my estate is going to my dog and I’m being sent for psychiatric evaluation. Reputations can be ruined and livelihoods can be destroyed just because your name matched someone on a list that the government agency is maintaining. Look at how difficult it is to remove your name off of the US no-fly list; even trying to remove yourself off of the Canadian no-fly list is no easy picnic – if they can’t get this process straight, why on earth are we considering giving any government the ability to access your internet movements without any checks and balances?
These are trivial examples, but in this online world your private information is a valuable currency and those who have it should treat it with respect. What you search for, who you communicate gives someone huge power over your life – enough to influence how you behave. A warrant shows that the government takes investigating our private lives very seriously; section 8 of Canada’s Constitution and Charter of Rights and Freedom grants you the right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure and Canada’s courts have recognized an individual’s right to a reasonable expectation of privacy. The original warrantless surveillance provisions in bill C-52 doesn’t even take into consideration the collateral damage that could occur from an overzealous law enforcement agent.
What Collateral Damage?
Consider that your name appeared on a list and the RCMP decided to pry into your Internet activities. Noticing that you use Gmail they contact Google to gain access to your e-mail and contacts that were stored there. They eliminate you as a suspect but you have a friend on your contact list that matches another investigation – they gain access to your friend’s data and the trail goes on and on and on. What would be stopping them from accessing all of the data from everyone within your contact list just because they were your friends? Now it’s just not your personal information being exposed, it’s everyone that you’ve ever had contact with and done without judicial oversight.
Enter the Cloud
There is a trend to moving everything into the cloud. Music, movies, e-mails, telephone, applications – you name it, it’s heading towards being accessible over the Internet. The more we rely on the Internet to remain connected to the world the more powerful warrantless on-line wiretapping will become. Who needs to bother with gaining a judge’s approval to tap your phones when all a police officer has to do is contact Rogers or Bell for the transcripts of your calls made over VOIP services.
Startrek Got It Right
If you haven’t done so already, head over to OpenMedia.ca and become familiar with their activities. They’re currently Canada’s best consumer watch dog when it comes to protecting and promoting an open and free Internet. Get involved, sign a petition – it’s not hard to do in this digital age.
When discussing this issue with your friends and if you’re running into difficulty communicating why they should be concerned with warrantless online surveillance watch more Star Trek: The Next Generation. The fight against the provisions in Bill C-52 reminds me of one of my favorite episodes – The Drumhead; the analogies within this episode to the issues being raised by privacy advocates are quite uncanny. On the surface a crime appears to have been committed when in fact a suspect felt forced to plead guilty to hide his ancestral heritage; the investigation and proceedings go out of control to the point where Captain Jean-Luc Picard is brought to the stand trail and made to look like a traitor against the Federation.
Lieutenant Worf: He refused to answer the question regarding his Romulan grandfather.
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: That is not a crime Worf! Nor can we infer his guilt because he didn’t respond.
Lieutenant Worf: Sir, if a man were not afraid of the truth, he would answer.
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: The Seventh Guarantee is one of the most important rights granted by the Federation. We cannot take a fundamental principle of the Constitution and turn it against a citizen.
Lieutenant Worf: Sir, the Federation *does* have enemies. We *must* seek them out!
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: Oh, yes. That’s how it starts. But the road from legitimate suspicion to rampant paranoia is very much shorter than we think. Something is wrong here, Mister Worf. I don’t like what we have become.
– Star Trek, The Next Generation: The Drumhead
The argument that if we are only performing legitimate activities on the Internet we should have nothing to fear is false – there are plenty of reason why we wish to keep legitimate activities private; our health, ancestral history, political views, sexual orientation and public perception are very powerful motivators. They can affect our careers and alter how we are perceived with our family and friends. The government promoting the fear of what possibly could happen without special powers is not enough justification to reduce your freedoms as defined in the Canadian Bill of Rights indefinitely. Our forefathers would want… demand a higher standard in order to alter what they worked so hard to protect.
I’ll let Captain Picard close this post; watch the video which was aired 10 years before the warrantless surveillance/wire-tapping powers were even considered.
“With the first link, the chain is forged. The first speech censured, the first thought forbidden, the first freedom denied, chains us all irrevocably.” Those words were uttered by Judge Aaron Satie, as wisdom and warning. The first time any man’s freedom is trodden on, we’re all damaged.