New federal privacy watchdog wants to split online crime bill

Ottawa seems to be pushing ahead with Bill C-13, the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act, despite the newly appointed privacy commissioner’s concerns that the legislation grants immunity to companies that voluntarily disclose private customer information to law enforcement agencies without a warrant.

“At the end of the day, this bill … would authorize telecommunication companies to disclose sensitive personal data about Canadians to law-enforcement officials simply based on a request that is not even made in the context of an investigation. I think that is very broad and of concern,” Daniel Therrien told reporters Tuesday, according to an article in the Globe and Mail.

Therrien, who was appointed last week, made his comments on Tuesday before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights. He suggested that less controversial measures against cyberbullying be split off from the bill and passed separately, leaving the more controversial privacy aspects to be studied further.

“From a privacy perspective, the offence provisions are largely uncontroversial and could be quickly dealt with by this House and sent on to the Senate for review,” Therrien said. “On the other hand, given that sensitive personal information and significant police powers are at play, the lawful access components deserve very close scrutiny and would benefit from a focused and targeted review.”

Accessing data is much more intrusive than simply preserving it, Therrien said, noting that any lowering of the “reasonable and probable grounds” threshold law enforcement agencies are required to meet will need to be fully explained and justified.

While Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Treasury Board President Tony Clement spoke glowingly of Therrien’s appointment a week previously, the tone was considerably different on Tuesday, with Conservative MPs aggressively questioning the new privacy commissioner and voicing doubts about his competence to assess the workings of the legislation. The Conservatives voted down amendments to C-13 and are continuing to press ahead to pass the entire bill as is.

One privacy expert is nothing short of alarmed. In a blog post on Wednesday, University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist said what happened on Tuesday amounted to “disastrous day for Canadian privacy.”

Geist said that government MPs “were using the most incredible justifications for problematic provisions in the bill.” C-13 “does not have mandatory disclosure provisions, and the voluntary disclosure provisions expand the scope of who may have access to personal information,” he wrote.

“I agree that the creation of the crime needs to be accompanied by the modernization of legislation on [police] techniques,” Therrien told reporters. “But what I’m saying, though, is that there are important privacy concerns we have with specific proposals at hand, and there should be further review of these things before the whole package is adopted.”

Andrew Brooks
Andrew Brooks
Andrew Brooks is managing editor of IT World Canada. He has been a technology journalist and editor for 20 years, including stints at Technology in Government, Computing Canada and other publications.

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