Internet surveillance in Canada

The Conservative government is proposing a new law that would require internet service providers to monitor and record what Canadians do online, and to provide that information to the authorities without a warrant.

As well as being an obvious violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (§8 “Everyone has the right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure.”), I think this is an example of thinking badly about security. Obviously, having the government monitor everything that happens online could prevent some bad things from happening. At the same time, it is virtually certain that the capability would be abused or that security breaches will allow it to be hijacked by those with nefarious purposes. The abuse could happen at the governmental level – say, with discreet inquiries being made into the private correspondence of members of competing political parties. It could be done within the police and intelligence services – say, a jilted ex tracking the emails of their former partner. It could be done within internet service providers – say, some low-paid tech at Bell or Telus deciding to earn a bit of extra cash by blackmailing customers.

The archives of internet use would be an irresistible target for malefactors of every type, from nosy bosses and spouses to spammers and rogue political operatives. Maintaining and trying to secure these archives would also be a major burden for internet service providers. Instead of being in the business of helping their clients communicate, they will be forced into the business of keeping tabs on their clients on behalf of the government.

The security risks created by internet surveillance are greater than the risks that it might help reduce. Furthermore, allowing the creation of internet surveillance systems violates the Charter-protected rights of Canadians. What Canadians do online is their private business. It is not something that governments have the right to monitor, just because doing so will occasionally allow them to catch people committing crimes. Hopefully, this proposal will never become law.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

29 thoughts on “Internet surveillance in Canada”

  1. Tories on e-snooping: ‘Stand with us or with the child pornographers’

    Canada’s privacy commissioners will be surprised to hear it, but the Conservatives are accusing anyone who opposes their bill to give police new powers to monitor the Internet of supporting child pornography.

    A similar comment might have cost Stephen Harper the 2004 election. But with the next election years away, it’s hard to know whether or when Public Safety Minister Vic Toews will change his tune.

    Mr. Toews will introduce Lawful Access legislation, as it is commonly called, into the House of Commons Tuesday. Previous versions of the bill failed to make it through minority parliaments, but now that the Conservatives have a majority it is almost certain to pass.

    The bill will require Internet service providers to store and to make available to the government and police forces information on the Internet activity of their customers.

    Police will require a warrant to obtain that information. But the bill would also permit them to obtain IP addresses (which identifies someone on the Internet), email addresses, mobile phone numbers and other information without any warrant.

    Ann Cavoukian, Ontario’s privacy watchdog, is fiercely opposed to the legislation, which she calls “surveillance by design.” Federal Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart and other provincial privacy commissioners have also raised concerns.

  2. ‘With us or with the child pornographers’ doesn’t cut it, Mr. Toews

    What you think of the Conservatives’ new bill to expand police surveillance of the web may depend on what you think of the long-gun registry and the long-form census.

    Public Safety Minister Vic Toews will argue that the new legislation, to be introduced Tuesday afternoon, will grant the government access to nothing more than the Internet equivalent of a telephone book, which police need to help track criminals and terrorists.

    Mr. Toews takes a dim view of anyone who would question the need for that access. In the Commons, Monday, he said people “can either stand with us or with the child pornographers.”

    Privacy commissioners in Ottawa and the provinces will not like being called such vile names. They have warned that the Conservatives are violating privacy rights by demanding the authority to collect IP addresses, email addresses, mobile phone numbers and other identifying information on anyone who interests them without a warrant.

    The government is unlikely ever to change the privacy commissioners’ minds, or to be swayed by their criticism. Politically, what matters is whether the large-C Conservatives can make the case for the bill with small-c conservatives.

    The new legislation, commonly referred to as the lawful access bill, would not give the government the power to track your movements, either online or through your phone, without a warrant. But it would require telecom companies to give up identifying information on clients if asked by the police.

    Jennifer Stoddart, the federal privacy commissioner, and Ann Cavoukian, Ontario’s privacy commissioner, maintain that the federal government hasn’t demonstrated the need for these new powers. Ms. Cavoukian is particularly vocal, calling the new bill “surveillance by design.”

  3. Just wait until WikiLeaks releases the web browsing history of all Canadians – with real names attached!

  4. This law could actually FACILITATE the production of child pornography. The government’s tracking system would catch some nude photos and explicit messages sent between underage people. Anyone with access to the surveillance system could collect those for their own use – like how some photo labs keep albums of people’s naked shots.

  5. Online surveillance bill will be ‘a gold mine’ for hackers: Ontario privacy commissioner

    The Conservative government revealed legislation on Tuesday that would increase online surveillance of citizens, as critics and privacy experts argued the bill would unjustly infringe upon the rights of Canadians and act as a magnet for data-hungry hackers.

    “This is going to be like the Fort Knox of information that the hackers and the real bad guys will want to go after. This is going to be a gold mine,” said Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian.

    “The government will say that they can protect the data, and they can encrypt it. Are you kidding me? The bad guys are always one step ahead.”

  6. Jesse Kline: Lawful access bill set to become the new gun registry

    For years, small-c conservatives have been arguing that the gun registry is a giant waste of money — not only because it went way over budget, but due to the fact that it serves to make criminals out of law abiding firearms owners. Meanwhile, those intent on committing crimes easily escape its grip. To their credit, the federal Tories are in the process of scrapping the registry. But while the government restores some of our freedoms with one hand, it simultaneously takes them away with the other.

    Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has placed the Conservatives’ so-called “lawful access” legislation — which they’ve been trying to pass since 2009 — on the House of Commons Order Paper. If it becomes law, the bill will give the government unprecedented access to Canadians’ online activities, by allowing police to collect the personal information of Internet users — including names, addresses and phone numbers — without having to go through the cumbersome process of obtaining a warrant beforehand.

    In order to gain access to these intimate details, the government will force Internet service providers to install costly monitoring equipment on their networks. Taxpayers will likely be forced to foot part of the bill, but the rest of the cost will be borne by private industry. Smaller providers could be driven out of what is already an uncompetitive market. The law would also make it much easier for police to force telecommunication companies to retain information on their customers and to enable tracking devices on mobile phones.

    This type of legislation brings us one step closer to George Orwell’s dystopian vision of a totalitarian state that keeps its citizens under constant surveillance. Yet there is no evidence the new law will achieve its public policy objectives.

    Law enforcement agencies have been unable to come up with a single investigation that has been hampered by the limits of the laws currently on the books. Even the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police could not find a “sufficient quantity of credible examples” to support the additional powers the lawful access legislation would grant them, according to a series of internal e-mails obtained by the Vancouver-based group Open Media. Postmedia News has also obtained government documents, in which officials from within Public Safety Canada object to some of the key arguments the Minister has used to justify the bill.

  7. What is Bill C-30 likely to contain?

    Assuming the bill mirrors the previous Conservative government approach, the bill will likely feature a three-pronged approach focused on information disclosure, mandated surveillance technologies, and new police powers.

    The first prong mandates the disclosure of Internet provider customer information without court oversight. Under current privacy laws, providers may voluntarily disclose customer information but are not required to do so. The new system would require the disclosure of customer name, address, phone number, email address, Internet protocol address, and a series of device identification numbers.

    While some of that information may seem relatively harmless, the ability to link it with other data will often open the door to a detailed profile about an identifiable person. Given its potential sensitivity, the decision to require disclosure without any oversight should raise concerns within the Canadian privacy community.

    The second prong requires Internet providers to dramatically re-work their networks to allow for real-time surveillance. The bill sets out detailed capability requirements that will eventually apply to all Canadian Internet providers. These include the power to intercept communications, to isolate the communications to a particular individual, and to engage in multiple simultaneous interceptions.

    Moreover, the bill establishes a comprehensive regulatory structure for Internet providers that would mandate their assistance with testing their surveillance capabilities and disclosing the names of all employees who may be involved in interceptions (and who may then be subject to RCMP background checks).

    The bill also establishes numerous reporting requirements including mandating that all Internet providers disclose their technical surveillance capabilities within six months of the law taking effect. Follow-up reports are also required when providers acquire new technical capabilities.

    Having obtained customer information without court oversight and mandated Internet surveillance capabilities, the third prong creates a several new police powers designed to obtain access to the surveillance data. These include new transmission data warrants that would grant real-time access to all the information generated during the creation, transmission or reception of a communication including the type, direction, time, duration, origin, destination or termination of the communication.

    Law enforcement could then obtain a preservation order to require providers to preserve subscriber information, including specific communication information, for 90 days. Finally, having obtained and preserved the data, production orders can be used to require the disclosure of specified communications or transmission data.

    While Internet providers would actively work with law enforcement in collecting and disclosing the subscriber information, they could also be prohibited from disclosing the disclosures as court may bar them from informing subscribers that they have been subject to surveillance or information disclosures.

  8. Q-465 — February 15, 2012 — Mr. Casey (Charlottetown) — With regard to websites accessed on the personal departmental desktop computers, laptop computers, mobile phones, tablet computers, or other internet-enabled devices issued to the Minister of Justice and to the Minister of Public Safety: (a) what are the URLs of all websites accessed on said devices between 12:01 a.m. on February 1, 2012, and 12:01 a.m. on February 14, 2012 (all dates and times inclusive), listed by ministry; and (b) at what times were those websites accessed, listed by ministry?

  9. I was watching CPAC last evening , poor Mr: Thews he will have to go back to the drawing table

  10. “Elsewhere, driven by the acceleration of computing power and connectivity and the simultaneous development of surveillance systems and tracking technologies, we are approaching a theoretical state of absolute information transparency, one in which ‘Orwellian’ scrutiny is no longer a strictly hierarchical, top-down activity, but to some extent a democratized one. As individuals steadily lose degrees of privacy, so to do corporations and states. Loss of traditional privacies may seem in the short term to be driven by issues of national security, but this may prove in time to be intrinsic to the nature of ubiquitous information.

    Certain goals of the government’s Total (now Terrorist) Information Awareness initiative may eventually be realized simply by the evolution of the global information system – but not necessarily or exclusively for the benefit of the United States or any other government. This outcome may be an inevitable result of the migration to cyberspace of everything that we do with information.

    Had Orwell known that computers were coming (out of Bletchley Park, oddly, a dilapidated English country house, home to the pioneering efforts of Alan Turing and other wartime code-breakers) he might have imagined a Ministry of Truth empowered by punch cards and vacuum tubes to better wring the last vestiges of freedom from the population of Oceania. But I doubt his story would have been very different. Would East Germany’s Stasi have been saved if its agents had been able to mouse away on PCs into the Nineties? The system would still have been crushed. It just wouldn’t have been under the weight of paper surveillance.”

    Gibson, William. Distrust That Particular Flavor. p.168-9 (hardcover)


    Our Office understands the challenges faced by law enforcement and national security authorities in fighting online crime at a time of rapidly changing communications technologies and the need to modernize their tactics and tools accordingly.

    We’re not necessarily opposed to legislation that modernizes police powers online – but it must demonstrably help protect the public, respect fundamental privacy principles established in Canadian law and be subject to proper oversight.

    Upon a preliminary review following the tabling of Bill C-30, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner recognizes the government has made improvements to this Bill from previous iterations. On balance, however, significant privacy concerns remain.

    We recognize that the government has reduced the number of data elements which could be accessed by authorities without a warrant of prior judicial authorization. At the same time, by requiring authorities to conduct regular audits and to provide them both to the relevant Minister and oversight bodies, including our Office, this appears to help address past concerns about a lack of oversight.

  12. Lorne Gunter: Want to read my email, Vic Toews? Get a warrant

    Vic Toews, stay out of my inbox. And no, it’s not because I’m trying to hide messages between me and kiddie porn providers.

    I was about to write a column defending the Tories’ “lawful access” bill, albeit with strong reservations. Then Public Safety Minister Vic Toews accused anyone and everyone who wasn’t fully behind his bill of being supportive of the sexual creeps who prey on children by making and distributing pornographic images of them.

    Seriously, Mr. Toews? Could you have done anything else that would have more thoroughly confirmed civil libertarians’ fears about your bill’s assault on privacy and personal liberty?

    It is not a sign of indifference to the scourge of online child pornography to be concerned about giving police too much authority to snoop around in Canadians’ online activities. That’s a genie that cannot be put back in its bottle once it’s been released.

    Once the government has required all the Internet providers in the country to install equipment on their servers that permits the accumulation of data about individuals’ surfing habits and electronic communications, it will be all too easy to use that technology for more than catching child sex predators or terrorists — both of which are worthwhile pursuits. Once the file savers are installed, politicians or police will talk themselves into the wisdom of using the same technology to find tax cheats, divorced parents falling behind on child support or even human-rights violators.

  13. Paying for our own surveillance

    February 22, 2012 9:18 AM |
    By Leslie MacKinnon

    There’s no way of knowing how much Bill C-30, colloquially known as the online snooping bill, will cost taxpayers, or boost monthly home internet and phone fees.

    For the internet service providers, the toll it will take on their bottom line could be significant, because of the investment in equipment needed to allow real-time interceptions of online conversations or for preserving huge amounts of data.

    “Even for my own small business, I think it would be tens of thousands of dollars. One of the things that jumped out at me (in the bill) is that the minster ‘may’ compensate us, not ‘should’ or ‘will,’ but ‘may,'” says Tom Copeland, president of, a small internet provider with 3,500 customers.

    “In the U.S., interceptions have become a business model, so there are cases where large telecommunications companies have set up entire branches where 200 employees sit in a room, and all they do is assist law enforcement with interception and monitor requests, but they make money on every request that comes in.”

  14. Online surveillance bill setup costs estimated at $80M

    Lawful access law’s startup costs $20M a year for four years

    It’s going to cost at least $80 million to implement the government’s lawful access bill to force internet and telecommunications service providers to collect customer information in case police need it for an investigation, CBC News has learned.

    C-30, a bill to update Canadian law when it comes to crimes committed online, will cost $20 million a year for the first four years and $6.7 million a year after that, Public Safety Canada told the CBC’s Hannah Thibedeau on Wednesday.

    A spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews wouldn’t provide any more information about the costs. It’s not clear if those are the only costs associated with the legislation.

  15. Canada’s spy-bill minister has no idea what is in his own law
    by Cory Doctorow

    Vic Toews, the Canadian Public Safety minister who introduced a sweeping domestic spy bill (a bill whose name keeps changing and is likely to end up being called the “Utterly necessary and minimally invasive bill to catch terrorists who are, at this very moment, trying to murder your children, yes you, Bill of 2012”) tells the CBC that he was surprised to learn that his bill lets any police officer request your personal information from ISPs

  16. Canadian Police Recommend Online Spying Tax For Internet Bills

    “One of the major unanswered questions about Bill C-30, Canada’s lawful access/online surveillance bill, is who will pay for the costs associated with responding to law enforcement demands for subscriber information (‘look ups’) and installation of surveillance equipment (‘hook ups’). Michael Geist recently obtained documents (PDF) from Public Safety under the Access to Information Act that indicates the government doesn’t really have its own answer. But he reports that the police do — a new ‘public safety’ tax to be added to Internet and wireless bills.”

  17. Canada’s warrantless spying bill is coming back, and it’s worse than before

    Michael Geist writes in with news of Canada’s bill C-30, the insane, overreaching warrantless spying bill that collapsed earlier this year on a wave of public disapprobation. As you might have suspected, it’s back. Michael sez, “The Canadian government has placed Bill C-30, the lawful access/online surveillance bill on hold, but there is no reason to believe it is going away. In fact, a recent report Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights suggests that the changes coming to the bill may not address public concern but rather expand lawful access requirements even further. The committee report on the State of Organized Crime that includes recommendations that reinforce Bill C-30’s mandatory warrantless disclosure of subscriber information and envision going beyond the bill by requiring both telecom companies and device manufacturers to assist in the decryption of encrypted communications as well as exploring mandatory verification of the identity of cellphone users. Moreover, Canadians shouldn’t be looking to the telcos for help. A Bell spokesperson stated ‘our primary concern in this area has always been the capacity of industry to implement any new requirements and who bears the cost.’ That is a troubling position for many Canadians who rightly expect their telecom companies to also be concerned with the privacy of their customers.”

  18. The Supreme Court of Canada struck down Friday warrantless wiretap powers that police have in cases of emergency. … Ruling in a 2006 British Columbia kidnapping case, the country’s top court said a 1993 provision of the Criminal Code is unconstitutional because there is no accountability or oversight for the warrantless searches, either to the person wiretapped or in reports to Parliament. The unanimous ruling was written by rookie judges Michael Moldaver and Andromache Karakatsanis. The case revolves around police intercepting the calls of the family of Peter Li, the kidnap victim.”

  19. How the Toews-sponsored Internet surveillance bill quietly died

    The Internet surveillance legislation sponsored by Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has disappeared down a dark legislative hole. For all intents and purposes, the bill is dead.

    If the Harper government still wants to pass a law that would make it easier for police to track people who use the web to commit crimes, it will have to start from scratch.

  20. Canada’s warrantless surveillance bill is, improbably, dead

    Remember Canada’s Bill C-30, the sweeping surveillance bill proposed by Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, who declared that if you opposed unlimited, unaccountable, secret warrantless snooping on networked communications by the police and by appointed civilians, you “stand with the child pornographers?” The bill that was a sure thing to pass, given the Conservative majority in Parliament and its total commitment to the bill?

    It’s dead.

    The Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson describes how a combination of social media campaigns (the #TellVicEverything hashtag, which saw Canadians revealing the trivial facts of their life to the snoopy minister; and the @Vikileaks30 account, which tweeted the humiliating details of Toews’ ugly divorce and estrangement from his family) and Toews’s own idiocy killed the seemingly unkillable plan

  21. Internet surveillance bill not dead, Toews says

    Despite controversy and criticism, Toews says government proceeding with C-30

    Public Safety Minister Vic Toews is denying reports that the Harper government intends to quietly shelve its controversial online surveillance bill, C-30.

    Speaking to reporters on Wednesday morning, Toews insisted the legislation was moving ahead.

    “Our government has been very clear, that matter will be referred to a parliamentary committee. In fact we made it clear that legislation would proceed to committee prior to second reading,” Toews said.

  22. Beware of “Surveillance by Design:” Proposed Federal Legislation Threatens Freedom and Privacy

    The theme of my 2011 Annual Report — Ever Vigilant — was chosen in large part because this year Ontarians faced what I consider to be one of the most invasive threats to our privacy and freedom that I have encountered in 25 years of safeguarding citizens’ rights and championing openness and transparency in government.

    That threat presented itself as lawful access legislation proposed by the federal government. The legislation was designed to provide police with much greater ability to access and track information about identifiable individuals via the communications technologies that we use every day, such as the Internet, smart phones, and other mobile devices, and at times, without a warrant or any judicial authorization. Telecommunications service providers would also be required to build and maintain intercept capabilities in their networks for use by police.

    It my view, it is highly misleading to simply call such legislation “lawful access” or to champion it as a child protection measure. The broad powers proposed represent much more — they represent a looming system of “Surveillance by Design.”

    Let me be clear, I hold our police services in the highest regard and have a deep appreciation for the critical public safety functions they perform. However, we must be vigilant in not allowing the investigative needs of police forces to outstrip our constitutional right “to be secure against unreasonable search and seizure.”

  23. Canada’s warrantless surveillance bill is back, and bigger than ever, with surveillance powers for US gov’t, too

    Bill C30, the sweeping Canadian warrantless Internet surveillance bill, is back from the dead. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews (who declared that opposition to his bill was tantamount to support for pedophiles) has been working behind the scenes to resurrect his legislation, joining forces with the US government in the name of “perimeter security.” This proposed deal would expand the warrantless surveillance to US authorities, who could also access Canadians’ private information.

  24. U.S. Expanding Cross-border Police Integration With Canada & Asset Forfeiture Sharing

    Concurrent with Obama’s proposed law legalizing and expanding cross-border police integration in North America, Canadians earlier this year discovered introduced (Commons Bill C-30 touted to protect children on the Internet—would also give any Canadian police officer—without a warrant—the power to request Internet service providers turn over customers’ information (see section 17 of C-30); allow Canadian police to seek into Canadians’ private computers. C-30 was strongly opposed by Canadians in April 2012. Canadians further discovered Canada had signed with the United States an array of (Asset Forfeiture Sharing Agreements) for Canada to share Canadian and Americans assets civilly or criminally confiscated using Asset Forfeiture laws that resulted from U.S. and Canada sharing information gleaned from electronic surveillance of Canadian and American Citizens’ communications, e.g., emails, faxes, Internet actively, phone records.

    Compare: The Obama Government wants the power (without a warrant) to introduce as evidence in U.S. Civil; Criminal and Administrative prosecutions any phone call record, email or Internet activity. Police can take out of context any innocent—hastily written email, fax or phone call record to allege a crime or violation was committed to cause a person’s arrest, fines and or civil asset forfeiture of their property. There are more than 350 laws/violations that can subject property to Government forfeiture that require only a civil preponderance of evidence.

    The U.S. “Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000” (effectively eliminated) the “five year statue of limitations” for Government Civil Asset Forfeiture: the statute now runs five years (from the date) government or a police agency allege they “learned” an asset became subject to forfeiture. It is foreseeable should (no warrant) government electronic surveillance be allowed; police will relentlessly sift through business and Citizens’ (government retained Internet data), emails and phone communications to discover possible criminal or civil violations. History Repeats: A corrupt or despot U.S. Government/Agency can too easily use no-warrant—(seized emails, Internet data and phone call information) to blackmail Americans, corporations and others in the same manner Hitler used his police state no warrant passed laws to extort support for the Nazi fascist government, including getting members of German parliament to pass Hitler’s 1933 Discriminatory Decrees that suspended the Constitutional Freedoms of German Citizens. A Nazi Government threat of Asset Forfeiture of an individual or corporation’s assets was usually sufficient to ensure Nazi support.

    Under U.S. federal civil asset forfeiture laws, a person or business need not be charged with a crime for government to forfeit their property. Most U.S. Citizens, property and business owners that defend their assets against Government Civil Asset Forfeiture claim an “innocent owner defense.” This defense can become a criminal prosecution trap for both guilty and innocent property owners. Any fresh denial of guilt made to government when questioned about committing a crime “even when you did not do the crime” may (involuntarily waive) a defendant’s right to assert in their defense—the “Criminal Statute of Limitations” past for prosecution; any fresh denial of guilt even 30 years after a crime was committed may allow U.S. Government prosecutors to use old and new evidence, including information discovered during Civil Asset Forfeiture Proceedings to launch a criminal prosecution. For that reason: many innocent Americans, property and business owners are reluctant to defend their property and businesses against Government Civil Asset Forfeiture. Annually U.S. Government seizes Billions in assets without filing criminal charges. Increasingly local police are turning their criminal investigations over to Federal Agencies to receive an 80% rebate of forfeited assets. Federal Government is not required to charge anyone with a crime to forfeit property.

    Re: waiving Criminal Statute of Limitations: see USC18, Sec.1001, James Brogan V. United States. N0.96-1579. U.S. See paragraph (6) at:

  25. Conservatives kill controversial ‘child pornographers’ Internet surveillance bill

    OTTAWA — The Conservative government has abandoned its controversial and much-maligned Internet surveillance bill, legislation it once claimed was crucial to stopping child pornographers.

    Less than a year ago support for Bill C-30, the so-called Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act, was presented to Canadians by the government as a binary choice.

    “He can either stand with us or stand with the child pornographers,” Public Safety Minister Vic Toews scolded a Liberal critic in the House of Commons last February.

    The comment set off a public fire storm concerning the Internet and personal privacy — a nasty fight that resulted in unsavoury details of Toews’ divorce being splashed across the web by a Liberal party operative.

    Toews, who introduced the legislation, did not attend Monday’s news conference where Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said Bill C-30 is dead.

    After announcing changes to emergency warrantless wiretap laws, Nicholson let drop that C-30 was gone, in response to a reporter’s question — an inquiry the minister was clearly expecting.

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