A request from police or a government security agency is never just a request. Most businesses can’t say “no.” Especially when the government making the request is the one that licenses and regulates them. Which is why the news that, as of 2011, nine members of the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, Canada’s cellphone carriers, received an average of 1,193,630 requests for customer information each year from the authorities – one request every 27 seconds – ought to give Canadians pause.
Canada has long-standing laws governing search warrants, under which police can only access your personal papers and effects with the approval of a judge. The legal hurdle is high, and it must be. The same goes for the rules on wiretapping: if government wants information, it has to apply to a judge. But the number of requests for subscriber information from the telcos, most of which may involve no judge or warrant, suggests that a giant extra-legal loophole has been opened up in the area of electronic communications. These and other numbers were gathered by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, and disclosed this week thanks to an access-to-information request from Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa.
Most of the information obtained is likely “metadata” – information about a person, and perhaps his location and who he is communicating with – rather than eavesdropping on phone conversations, which would legally require compliance with the wiretapping rules in the Criminal Code.
But the huge number of requests suggests that authorities are collecting massive amounts of information on a large number of Canadians, without legal barriers or oversight. Canadian wireless carriers apparently find it easy to go along with the police and other government agencies. One company all-too-helpfully installed a “mirror” that automatically sends raw data to the authorities. Chantal Bernier, the interim privacy commissioner, says that there needs to be a legal framework to clarify the scope of this warrantless access. We’d go further. Warrantless access is not warranted. Canadians once had an expectation of privacy against government snooping. The verb should be in the present tense. It’s time to update the law.