Electronic Surveillance

Electronic surveillance, given its low-cost/high efficiency and broad-ranging nature, is potentially the most insidious form of surveillance available. 'Lawful Access', a deceptively innocuous term given to the government's attempts to expand its power to spy on Internet activity by removing traditional safegaurds on its ability to use electronic surveillance. It does so by providing new ways by which law enforcemet and other state agents can lawfully access and intercept online activity and information. CIPPIC is working with other groups and individuals concerned about increasing government surveillance to assess and respond to the Canadian government's "lawful access" proposals. CIPPIC is concerned that attempts to update 'lawful access' capabilities are far from targeted and will have serious detrimental impact on Canadians' civil liberties.


PIPEDA Complaints

Law Reform

Last month, Public Safety Canada followed through on commitments to review and consult on Canada’s national security framework. The process reviews powers that were passed into law following the passage of Bill C-51, Canada’s recent controversial anti-terrorism overhaul, as well as invite a broader debate about Canada’s security apparatus. While many consultation processes have explored expansions of Canada’s national security framework, the current consultation constitutes the first modern day attempt to explore Canada’s national security excesses and deficiencies. Unfortunately, the framing of the consultation demonstrates minimal direct regard for privacy and civil liberties because it is primarily preoccupied with defending the existing security framework while introducing a range of additional intrusive powers. Such powers include some that have been soundly rejected by the Canadian public as drawing the wrong balance between digital privacy and law enforcement objectives, and heavily criticized by legal experts as well as by all of Canada’s federal and provincial privacy commissioners. The government’s framing of the issues are highly deficient. Specifically, the consultation documents make little attempt to explain the privacy and civil liberties implications that can result from the contemplated powers. And while the government is open to suggestions on privacy and civil liberties-enhancing measures, few such proposals are explored in the document itself. The consultation documents also fail to provide detailed suggestions for improving government accountability and transparency surrounding state agencies’ use of already-existent surveillance and investigative tools. 

In light of these deficiencies, we will be discussing a number of the consultation document’s problematic elements in a series of posts authored in conjunction with Christopher Parsons at the Citizen Lab, beginning with today's installment (after the jump, or in PDF format) regarding the government’s reincarnation of a highly controversial telecommunication subscriber identification power.

CIPPIC appeared today before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy & Ethics (ETHI) in its ongoing review of Canada's aging Privacy Act. The Act regulates the federal government's handling of personal information, comprising a central component of Canada's privacy framework. However, it has not received any substantial updates since its introduction in the early 1980s, despite tectonic shifts in the incentives animating government data-related objectives as well as in the technological capability to achieve these objectives. In addition, the government has introduced numerous laws designed to update and expand its ability to collect, use and share private data since the 1980s, including laws specifically designed to address technological developments. In the face of this one-sided expansion of state capabilities, the Privacy Act has simply not kept pace, and is in serious need of modernization if it is to continue to effectively meet its objectives to protect individual privacy rights, facilitate government accountability and safeguard public trust.

CIPPIC's recommendations sought to address key gaps in the Privacy Act, while adding principled protections that will help the Act stay relevant in the future. This includes the addition of principled limits on how long data can be reasonably kept by the government. There is currently no such explicit obligation in the Privacy Act, despite the fact that retention limitations are a hallmark of data protection regimes. An over-riding reasonableness obligation is also necessary, as it would ensure government data practices remain proportionate and in alignment with Charter values. CIPPIC also called for addressing central shortages in the Act's transparency framework, including the incorporation of statistical reporting obligations attaching to all law enforcement electronic surveillance powers, and a general 'openness' obligation compelling the government to proactively explain its privacy practices. Additional recommendations addressed the need for mandating reasonable technical safeguards, a mandatory data breach notification regime and formalizing privacy impact assessment requirements.

CIPPIC and the Citizen Lab, released a report today that describes and analyzes a class of covert electronic surveillance devices called cell site simulators (typically referred to as IMSI Catchers or by brand names such as 'Stingray'). IMSI Catchers operate by impersonating cell phone towers in order to trick mobile devices within range into transmitting digital identifiers, which are then used to track mobile devices or identify the otherwise anonymous individuals associated with them. The report (Executive Summary, FR) argues that the devices are inherently invasive. The geo-location and identification they facilitate engages sensitive privacy interests and, moreover, they are inherently coarse - for each target they are deployed against, the privacy of thousands of non-targeted mobile devices within range is collaterally affected. IMSI Catchers are also intrusive for their interference with the operation of mobile devices, which cannot receive or transmit any phone, text or data communications while engaged with an IMSI Catcher. This can include interference with critical communications such as emergency 911 calls.

Exacerbating the intrusive features of this electronic surveillance tool has been the cloud of secrecy that pervades its use. The report describes significant efforts by journalists and civil society, in Canada and abroad, which sought to uncover use of this device in Canada and the heavy and unnecessary yet persistent resistance these efforts have experienced. The resulting secrecy, which appears to be encouraged by non-disclosure agreements imposed on Canadian agencies by IMSI Catcher vendors, has delayed important public policy debates regarding the appropriate use of these devices, while eroding public confidence. The report calls for the imposition of a range of transparency, proportionality and mitigation measures, modeled on regulatory frameworks adopted by other jurisdictions for IMSI Catchers, by Canadian courts and legislatures for comparably intrusive electronic surveillance tools and by international normative frameworks for digital privacy protection.

Cell-site simulators, colloquially referred to as IMSI Catchers or by brand names such as "Stingrays" or "King Fisher" are surveillance tools used by state agencies to identify or track mobile devices (and, of course, the individuals associated with such devices). Compared to other surveillance devices, IMSI Catchers are inherently invasive. They are designed to impersonate cell towers, in both functionality and appearance. As a result, IMSI Catcher surveillance is broad and indiscriminate -each time an IMSI Catcher is deployed against a specific target, it interferes with all devices in range. Each time an IMSI Catcher is used against one specific target, it can interfere with the privacy of thousands, collecting the digital identifiers (IMSI, IMEI) of all mobile devices within range. With these identifiers, otherwise anonymous individuals can be geo-located or tracked. In addition to the privacy interference, IMSI Catchers interfere with the functionality of mobile devices in range, preventing them from sending or receiving phone calls, text messages or data, including emergency 911 calls.

The secrecy surrounding the use of these devices has been significant, with law enforcement agencies in Canada generally refusing to acknowledge, or even deny, whether they have ever made use of such a device. The Vancouver Police (VPD), for example, have refused to respond to a freedom of information demand from the Pivot Legal Society for any records relating to its use of these devices. CIPPIC and Christopher Parsons from Citizen Lab represented an intervener in the appeal of that refusal, OpenMedia. VPD defends its decision on the basis that acknowledging any IMSI Catcher would undermine their utility as surveillance tools. However, as we pointed out in the intervention, a lot of information is already in the public record regarding the capabilities of these devices and their use by state agencies, and there is a compelling public interest in publicizing use of these devices, to facilitate public debate regarding the appropriate parameters of their use. UPDATE: On May 25, 2016, after reviewing the record of the appeal, VPD issued a response, indicating that they do not own an IMSI Catcher and have no records relating to the use of such devices. However, ongoing questions remain regarding whether VPD has used these devices in past investigations through the aegis of the RCMP.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, there have been numerous calls by security agencies to once again expand the nature and scope of surveillance and other security framework under which they operate. Many of these calls were neatly summarized in an opinion piece in the Globe and Mail published November 25, 2015. A number of civil society organizations wrote in response today, refuting the one-sided expansion of state powers as an enduring solution to the world's security problems, the full response and list of signatories is replicated below. Also today, the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group penned a well-argued response to attempts by RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson, who has renewed calls for legislation granting police unsupervised and unrestrained access to online identifiers. The post recalls how Canadians have soundly rejected such calls in the past when it was presented as a solution to, in succession: cybercrime, child pornography and cyber-bullying. This latest iteration is equally as invasive and equally as unnecessary as its predecessors. Online identifiers are the essence to digital privacy and anonymity. Granting wholesale access to them is neither necessary to effective law enforcement or counter-terrorism, nor is it a proportional incursion on our digital privacy. If police need specific access to identifying information, it should only be obtained through the use of a dedicated production order similar to those already in the Criminal Code for other forms of metadata such as transmission and tracking information.

Overall, as both civil society initiatives note, we are seeing a familiar list of demands for new powers from law enforcement following the Paris attacks. However, it is notable that none of these are responses to whatever shortcomings (if any) in surveillance powers may have contributed to the Paris attacks. The Globe and Mail letter is reproduced after the bump and can also be read here.

CIPPIC, OpenMedia, and over 40 other civil society groups and privacy experts wrote to the government today calling for a public consultation on the legacy of Bill C-51, the highly controversial and one-sided overhaul of Canada's security and investigative framework adopted by the previous government late last year. The letter notes with enthusiasm the government's commitment to address some of the pressing problems raised by Bill C-51, but urges that these fixes come only after public engagement on the issue has occurred. Bill C-51 was developed in an atmosphere and process that was often openly hostile to civil society input, and this is reflected in almost every facet of its multi-pronged expansion of security powers. It detrimentally impacted on several elements of Canadian society while exacerbating long-standing problems relating to Canada's flight-restriction mechanisms, information-sharing, intelligence oversight and due process. It is no surprise that over 300,000 Canadians have spoken out against Bill C-51, and in just the past week more than 10,000 have called on the government to publicly consult on how to address its legacy.

In spite of this controversy, the letter points out, neither this government nor the previous has ever made the case for any of Bill C-51's elements, and that doing so must be the first step to a reasoned debate around its various elements. Once this case has been made, in the form of a discussion paper, the letter calls for an online public consultation as well as an opportunity for stakeholders to comment on the measures and justifications underlying the changes to Canada's security framework that the government wishes to adopt or retain. In particular, there is concern that the adoption of parliamentary oversight for intelligence agencies - a mechanism that has proven useful, but not independently sufficient in many foreign jurisdictions including the United States and the United Kingdom - will be presented as a panacea to the excesses of Canada's security apparatus. The letter, as well as a joint media release that accompanied its delivery, can be read after the bump, and our Bill C-51 primer (with OpenMedia and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression) can be read here (PDF).

Agents of the State

In a submission filed with the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs in May 2007 on Bill C-31, CIPPIC objected to the expansion of personal information used for secondary purposes without the consent of electors. Under the Act, Elections Canada is required to share names and addresses from the National Register of Electors with political parties for fundraising and other campaign purposes. Bill C-31 would have added date of birth to the lists of electors shared for these purposes.  As a result of opposing to this proposal by the Privacy Commissioner of Canada and CIPPIC, sharing of date of birth was removed from the bill before it was passed by the House of Commons.

Privacy in domain name registration (CIRA & ICANN)

In response to planned outsourcing by the British Columbia government of certain database administrative duties to a U.S.-linked company, the British Columbia Privacy Commissioner invited public input by August 6, 2004 on the extent to which the USA Patriot Act allows US authorities to access the personal information of British Columbians, and the implications of such access for public body compliance with privacy legislation.

New information and communication technologies such as the Internet, email, cellphones, and encryption offer individuals new ways to communicate, organize, and engage in criminal behaviours, creating challenges for law enforcement agencies in their efforts to investigate and prosecute criminal activity. On the other hand, these same technologies provide authorities with access to potentially vast amounts of personal information on individuals.

CIPPIC staff discuss issues arising from proposed lawful access legislation.

R v Fearon, 2014 SCC 77, SCC File No 35498

Chehil/MacKenzie v. Her Majesty the Queen, S.C.C. FIle Nos. 34524 & 34397

Telus Communications Company v. Her Majesty the Queen, 2013 SCC 16

PIPEDA complaint that Canada.com's decision to outsource storage of customer emails to the United States failed to provide an adequate level of protection by exposing those emails to the risk of police access through invasive surveillance powers.

Canadian Banks and SWIFT

Bill 622: CSEC Transparency & Accountability

On February 14, 2012, the federal government once more introduced a legislative package of lawful access bills: Bill C-30Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act

Lawful Access (Bills C-50, C-51 & C-52)

Government reintroduces online spying legislation (Winter 2010)

In an open letter to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, CIPPIC and a number of civil society organizations voice serious concerns with respect to Bill C-29, currently before the House and scheduled for second reading early next week. The Bill, ironically dubbed the 'Safeguarding Canadians' Personal Information Act', proposes a number of amendments to Canada's federal privacy protection statute, PIPEDA. Far from improving privacy, the Bill threatens to erode civil liberties in serious ways. Even where it attempts to improve privacy, it falls short by failing to provide any incentive for compliance.

The most troubling elements of the Bill pave the way to a dramatic expansion in the ways in which private businesses can be used in investigations against their own customers. While privacy should never be a bar to legitimate investigations of actual wrongs, the law provides mechanisms such as warrants, production orders, mandatory disclosure laws, and discovery processes that ensure investigations can occur with proper safeguards in place. This Bill essentially bypasses all of these safeguards by adding and expanding exceptions that permit organizations to simply give away their customer's information and includes elements evocative of the US PATRIOT Act and all the civil liberties violations that accompanied it.

Canada's 2010 Digital Economy Consultation

Bills C-46 & C-47, collectively the 'lawful access' or 'online surveillance' legislation, introduced on June 18, 2009.

Public Safety Canada consultations on online surveillance legislation (Fall 2007)

On November 15, 2005, the federal government introduced Bill C-74, the Modernization of Investigative Techniques Act (MITA), "an act to compel all telephone and Internet companies to create and maintain infrastructures that are intercept capable and to provide access to basic subscriber contact information such as a name, address or telephone number." Note that this bill does not introduce new Production Orders, Preservation Orders, or other Criminal Code amendments that are described below as part of the broader package of "Lawful Access" proposals on which the government has been consulting.

Department of Justice consultations on electronic surveillance legislation, March 2005