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The Huffington Post Canada | By Daniel TencerPosted: 03/05/2014 3:20 pm EST | Updated: 03/05/2014 3:59 pm EST
Telecom companies would be granted immunity for handing over information on their customers without a warrant under a law meant to target cyberbullying, civil liberties groups say.
OpenMedia is leading a coalition of organizations that are lining up against Bill C-13, which the Harper government tabled last fall in response to a series of high-profile cyberbullying cases.
Digital law experts and civil liberties groups say the law goes far beyond targeting online bullying, and essentially revives many of the elements of a controversial earlier online spying bill.
The Tories pulled the plug on that proposed law in 2012 after then-Public Safety Minister Vic Toews caused controversy by asserting that opponents of the bill aresiding “with child pornographers.”
The new proposed law, Bill C-13 or the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act, “will allow authorities access to the private lives of millions of law-abiding Canadians, even if they’re not suspected of wrong-doing,” OpenMedia said in a statement released Wednesday.
“Bill C-13 would let those authorities create detailed profiles of Canadians based on who they talk to and what they say and do online. The legislation also provides immunity to telecom providers who hand over the private information of Canadians without a warrant,” the group said.
University of Ottawa digital law professor Michael Geist wrote last November that the proposed law would essentially allow authorities to request data on any telecom subscriber, regardless of whether the request is in connection to the investigation of a crime.
Justice Minister Peter MacKay says the bill will not erode internet privacy rights, and telecom companies will only be granted immunity if their disclosure of subscriber data complies with the law.
But Geist and others have accused MacKay of misleading the public by suggesting these disclosures would always involve a warrant, which is not the case. Telecom companies already have the right under the law to disclose subscriber data to authorities without a warrant.
Critics have charged the government with creating a legislative “Trojan horse” by tacking on these new provisions to a bill ostensibly meant to protect against cyberbullying.
“They’re bringing through the back door what they couldn’t get through the front door,” OpenMedia executive director Steve Anderson told Huffington Post Canada.
Anderson said the Harper government has been “more successful with the branding” of this bill, thanks to its use of the cyberbullying issue as a way to frame the bill.
He said his organization is not opposed to the cyberbullying elements of the bill, and said he could support the NDP’s proposal to split off that part of the bill from the rest. That part of the bill would make it illegal to distribute “intimate images” without the consent of the person in the images.
But the parts of the bill dealing with access to subscriber information “need to be fixed,” Anderson said.
Anderson noted that law enforcement groups such as the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police have been lobbying heavily for the bill.
The telecom immunity provisions are similar to those introduced in the U.S., where civil liberties groups attempted to sue telecom companies for eavesdropping on subscribers without a warrant in the years after 9/11.
The 2008 FISA Amendments Act provided immunity to telecoms from such lawsuits. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law in 2012.
Since then, a series of documents from the NSA, leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden, have indicated that warrantless online surveillance by governments may be far more extensive than previously thought.
Leaked documents from Snowden illustrated that Canada has helped allied countries to carry out warrantless surveillance. The documents also indicated Canada’s electronic spying agency, CSEC, collected data from Canadians’ computers at an airport WiFi hotspot, though a federal watchdog later said Canadians were not tracked during that experiment.
Many anti-cyberbullying activists have hailed the legislation. Carol Todd, mother of cyberbullying victim Amanda Todd, wrote in a blog at HuffPost Canada last year that the bill would have saved her daughter’s life.
MacKay has said the government would like to see the bill pass into law this spring.
When the Harper government tables its latest budget Tuesday afternoon, it will include continued funding for a massive, opulent new headquarters for Canada’s electronic spy agency, CSEC.
The $1.2-billion building on Ottawa’s east side — dubbed the “spy palace” by critics and believed to be the most expensive government building ever constructed in Canada — has become a rallying point for activists protesting in the wake of allegations that CSEC has been spying on Canadians, in contravention of its mandate and possibly Canadian law.
More than 45 organizations, including OpenMedia, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, Greenpeace and several unions, are launching a campaign Tuesday “to tell MPs to stop wasting billions on Canada’s expensive online spying apparatus,” according to a statement from OpenMedia.
It’s part of a multinational event, dubbed “The Day We Fight Back,” meant to launch a new, ongoing campaign to bring government surveillance under control.
In CSEC’s new headquarters, the Canadian activist groups see a potent symbol of the growth of the surveillance state in recent years.
“We now have this dramatic, visual point of reference for CSEC — this grand piece of architecture rising in the east end — at a time when surveillance is becoming more and more of an issue,” Ian MacLeod, an Ottawa Citizen reporter who covers national security issues, explained to CBC Radio last fall.
Government estimates place the official cost of the new CSEC headquarters at $867 million, but according to a CBC investigation last fall, the building’s final cost will be closer to $1.2 billion. And when the $3-billion contract to operate the building for 20 years is added, the new HQ’s cost soars past $4 billion.
As the CBC noted, the building has more floor space than Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, and cost enough to build “several” large hospitals. It will house about 2,000 CSEC employees.
“Canadians are wasting billions of taxpayer dollars on a bloated spy bureaucracy that is monitoring our private lives,” OpenMedia.ca executive director Steve Anderson said in a statement.
“It’s time for common sense to prevail. We need to rein in CSEC and other security agencies before they get even more out of control. That’s why we’re calling on MPs to make a firm commitment to introduce pro-privacy legislation to protect the privacy of all residents of Canada.”
Documents from Edward Snowden’s trove of NSA data indicate that CSEC spied on Canadian travelers through WiFi hot spots at a major airport. The Harper government denies that the privacy of Canadians was invaded in the experiment, but privacy experts say the metadata collected by the CSEC would have exposed a great deal of private information about the targeted individuals.
The CSEC headquarters is being developed by Plenary Group Canada, an infrastructure company that specializes in government projects. The building is expected to be completed this year. Plenary Group boasts of the building’s innovative green technologies.
“Walls of windows fill the facility with natural light and reduce the building’s electricity consumption and rainwater collection ponds reduce the facility’s consumption of water for irrigation,” the company’s fact sheet reads.
In an interview with CBC, former CSEC head John Adams admitted the building didn’t need to be an “architectural wonder.”
“But, you know, glass in this [CBC] building is the same price as glass in that [CSEC] building,” he said. “That building is just going to look an awful lot better than this building … That facility is going to be quite magnificent.”
Is it worth $1.2 billion to build a “magnificent” headquarters for Canada’s electronic spy agency? Let us know in the comments below.