Say no to government spying

NationalPost.com – Full Comment
March 31, 2014.   Chris Schafer and Jeremy Waiser

It takes a pretty special issue to unite our two organizations in common cause. But our government is working to push a privacy-gutting bill through Parliament, using very cynical means: exploiting our grief over the loss of two teenage victims of online harassment.

It’s called the Cyber Bullying Bill, but it’s really an attempt to legalize unprecedented government access to our online activity. The tragic deaths of Rehtaeh Parsons and Amanda Todd must not be ignored, but a major invasion of our online privacy is not the answer.

When the original bill was introduced it was called the “Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act,” made famous for its vigorous defence by then-public safety minister Vic Toews, who told us that standing against this attack on privacy was “standing with the child pornographers.”

Canadians responded with outrage and caused the government to bid a rare, hasty retreat and drop the bill. But now they’re back. The “Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act” was debated in Parliament last week and is by and large the same bill. Only the “old fear” they used to sell this before — child pornography — has been swapped for cyber bullying.

The need to protect teens from online threats is something we all agree on. The problem is that only four of the bill’s 70 pages actually have anything to do with cyber bullying, while the remainder is designed to systematically dismantle our privacy rights. It effectively will allow the state to snoop on nearly everything we do online.

While the bill does away with the previous incarnation’s warrantless search provisions, it now includes new indirect measures to stealthily pry open Canadians’ computers to the eyes of government authorities. Its key provisions take away the right of citizens to sue Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Rogers or Bell if they give up information about our online activities to government agencies that ask for it. And with it, we lose a vital safeguard protecting our rights: the threat of legal action.

Government agencies will have easier access to our metadata by requiring only a ‘reasonable suspicion’ standard

But it doesn’t stop there. It will make it easier for government agencies to track our movements whenever we step out of the house — using our own phones or even using external tracking devices.

Government agencies will also have easier access to our metadata by requiring only a “reasonable suspicion” standard before seeking the authority to conduct searches. This falls well below the normal requirement of “reasonable and probable grounds.”

All this, despite the Supreme Court’s recent warning that “it is difficult to imagine a more intrusive invasion of privacy than the search of a personal or home computer.” This law could serve to make ISPs part of Canada’s security establishment — they’d be obligated to spy on their customers.

We are calling on the government to throw out the bill’s privacy gutting measures and re-introduce only the parts concerning cyber bullying

The onus ought to be on government to justify the necessity of a law before it treads on our liberty by invading our privacy. The vast majority of this bill just doesn’t meet that standard. It’s an unwarranted intrusion on our freedom. And if the government is going to try to pass these kinds of laws, they should at least be straight up with Canadians about what the bill’s really all about. (Hint: It’s not cyber bullying.)

Together we are calling on the government to throw out the bill’s privacy gutting measures and re-introduce only the parts concerning cyber bullying. We are joined in this effort by a slew of organizations, academics and legal experts in the Protect Our Privacy coalition. Seventy thousand people from across the country have also signed onto an Avaaz petition echoing this call.

This bill is a terrible threat to the basic privacy rights of all Canadians. We call on all Canadians to join us in opposing it.

National Post

Chris Schafer is the executive director of the Canadian Constitution Foundation. Jeremy Waiser is a campaign director with Avaaz, the online advocacy organization.

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