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Privacy expert are astonished that Canadian government agencies are asking making huge numbers of demands on telecommunications providers and social media companies for subscriber information, most of it without a judicial warrant – which is lawful.

The news was revealed Tuesday during the Senate testimony of interim federal privacy commissioner Chantal Bernier and reported by a number of publications including the CBC and the Toronto Star.

The Star quoted Halifax privacy lawyer David Fraser saying the latest numbers – 1.2 million requests for information on just under 758,000 people in 2011, the latest year numbers are available – is “unsettling:” He expected something under 100,000.

Law professor Michael Geist put it in a different way: every 27 seconds some federal agency is making a request for subscriber data.

Here’s a link to information given to the privacy commissioner’s office in 2011  by the law firm acting for the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA), which had figures for nine of the country’s biggest providers.

In an era where law enforcement agencies around the world are looking for people willing to commit violence, governments often insist investigators need the ability to quickly access information about suspicious people to track their use of online services.

Former Harper government Justice Minister Rob Nicholson was keen to portray those who opposed its lawful access legislation – which it was forced to withdraw – as people who side with child pornographers.

Telecom providers are in a bind: On the one hand they are regulated by Ottawa and obliged to follow the law. If warrants aren’t required for some information, they are hard-pressed to refuse a request.

On the other hand they are carefully issuing statements that they won’t give more disclosure to law enforcement agencies than is lawful.

Still, there is one question: Can there be hundreds of thousands of people in this country who are under suspicion?

 

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