Privacy czars urge caution on proposed surveillance powers

Police could receive sweeping new powers to monitor the internet communications of Canadians under proposed federal legislation, warns Yukon's information and privacy commissioner, Tracy-Anne McPhee.

Police could receive sweeping new powers to monitor the internet communications of Canadians under proposed federal legislation, warns Yukon’s information and privacy commissioner, Tracy-Anne McPhee.

She’s joining privacy czars across Canada in a call for legislators to place careful limits on these new powers to ensure they’re only used when dealing with “serious crimes and life-threatening emergencies.”

Currently, the two bills introduced by the Conservative government in June – the Investigative Powers for the 21st Century Act and the Technical Assistance for Law Enforcement in the 21st Century Act – have no such restrictions.

The legislation would allow authorities to track all types of electronic transmissions - such as text messaging, e-mails, web browsing and internet phone lines – without a warrant.

This is not quite eavesdropping: while it would allow authorities to trace the flow of information, they would not be able to read the content of message without a warrant.

The legislation would also allow authorities to activate tracking devices in cellphones and cars.

And the draft laws would compel internet service providers to provide the personal information of subscribers to authorities.

These powers could be exercised not just by the RCMP and Canada’s spy agency, CSIS, but could also extend to other federal agents, such as Revenue Canada, border security and coroners, said McPhee.

Police argue criminals are currently able to use online “safe havens” to avoid being tracked.

“Nobody wants to hamper legitimate law-enforcement needs,” said McPhee. But she warned the proposed bills are “very broad” and should include careful limits.

That includes effective oversight and public reporting on the use of these new powers and a five-year parliamentary review.

Similar caution must be exercised by Canadian governments and private companies as they work towards creating electronic health records for Canadians, said McPhee.

Yukon doesn’t share electronic health records, “but currently they’re working towards that,” she said.

The Canadian government has spent up to $3 billion on creating the Canada Health Infoway, Still, clear rules have yet to emerge concerning the privacy rights of patients.

Patients should be able to access their own health information, set rules for who is able to access their records and express wishes as to how their information is used, among other powers, said McPhee.

It still remains far from clear if these bills will become law.

Parliament reconvenes today, and, if the Liberals make good of their vow to topple the Conservative government, then these bills would die on the order paper.

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.