(Un)Lawful Access

Last week, Openmedia.ca hosted the Vancouver premier of New Transparency documentary, (Un)Lawful Access, in which surveillance, security, and privacy experts comment on the Lawful Access legislation which looks set to be reintroduced in Canada for the umpteenth time. Lawful Access legislation expands the ability for law enforcement to obtain access to the huge amounts of meta-data about our digital activities, with precious little oversight, and little justification.

The BC Civil Liberties Association’s report  on the legislation reveals that, without a warrant, police can request the “name, address, telephone number and electronic mail address of any subscriber to any of the service provider’s telecommunications services and the Internet protocol address, mobile identification number, electronic serial number, local service provider identifier, international mobile equipment identity number and subscriber identity module card number that are associated with the subscriber’s service and equipment” (p. 33).

This report is the most comprehensive assessment of the new legislation and its privacy impacts, and it was released after the screening. Following a panel discussion which was at times both highly entertaining in the incongruity of government justifications, and deeply concerning due to their apparent acceptance,  the report flew off the table. Presenting and participating in the discussion were BCCLA Policy Director Micheal Vonn, BC Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth DenhamChris Parsons, contributor to the BCCLA’s report “Moving Toward a Surveillance Society – Proposals to Expand “Lawful Access” in Canada”, and documentary producer Kate Milberry. The panellists did a great job of getting across just how widely this legislation casts the surveillance net, how unnecessary it is, and who the real people of interest are- as Micheal Vonn noted, some of the most large-scale surveillance operations in Canada to date have been targeted at protesters (notably the G20 protests in Toronto), environmentalists, First Nations activists, and civil liberties advocates. It was not lost on anyone in the room that just by attending that event, under this new legislation we may have been made targets. Therefore this legislation would not only result in a loss of privacy but a dramatic chilling of free speech.

This must be understood as part of a global shift- Canada is certainly not the first nation to try to legislate such widespread and unbridled surveillance. Nations such as China with its ‘Great Firewall’ are well known for attempting to maintain strict control of new media; and nations experiencing political and social unrest, such as Egypt, Syria, and Iran, experienced digital media blackouts in an attempt to quell protest and uprising. However similar levels of surveillance are aspired to even in democratic societies. Our neighbours in the U.S. have long been subjected high levels of both legal surveillance through legislation like the Patriot Act and even the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, as well as illegal as the NSA warrantless wiretapping scandal demonstrated.

The UK also has high levels of citizen surveillance, however there are much stronger methods of oversight built into these programs. While the levels of surveillance being proposed in Canada are of course extremely concerning, it’s the lack of oversight that really exacerbates this problem. As Nathalie Des Rosiers notes in the (Un)Lawful Access documentary, warrants are a good thing, they keep us honest. Without a way to hold law enforcement accountable, the potential for abuse (and the temptation towards it) is far too great.

Of course, law enforcement should have access to all the information it needs in order to uphold the law and to protect the public, but they must do so without unnecessarily infringing on citizens’ civil liberties, and we have yet to see evidence of the necessity for these new powers. Privacy is not an opposite to security; both are necessary in a democracy.