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Peter MacKay, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada speaks as Steven Blaney, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, back right, Lianna McDonald, Executive Director of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, join him in making an announcement on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013., as part of Bullying Awareness Week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick (Sean kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Peter MacKay, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada speaks as Steven Blaney, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, back right, Lianna McDonald, Executive Director of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, join him in making an announcement on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013., as part of Bullying Awareness Week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick (Sean kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Globe editorial

Electronic interception should not be without a warrant Add to ...

The Harper government has a compulsive habit of introducing omnibus bills, splicing together important pieces of legislation with little or no connection to each other.

On Wednesday, Peter MacKay, the Minister of Justice, tabled a bill that was said to be primarily about cyberbullying. In fact, much of it has nothing to do with the subject.

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Instead, a large portion of the imperfectly named Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act is a new version of the so-called “lawful access” bill introduced by Vic Toews, the former minister of public safety, in early 2012. It was withdrawn in the face of widespread criticism. This latest piece of legislation is an improvement on Mr. Toews’ effort, which went too far in permitting warrantless interceptions of electronic communications. An improvement, but still imperfect.

The goal is to update the Criminal Code’s wiretapping provisions to cover modern electronic communications. In the 1970s, the time-honoured search-warrant procedure was used as the basis for what were then new rules on how and when police can listen in on or get information about your phone calls. They must apply to a judge for authorization, and the hurdle is high.

When it comes to wireless communications, however, police are currently able to get from wireless carriers pretty much all they ask for, thanks to what is known as the Solicitor-General’s Enforcements Standards, built into the carriers’ licences. That makes it too easy for the authorities to pry into what should be your confidential information.

Under current law, a wiretapping authorization will only be issued by a judge if police can show a “reasonable ground to believe that an offence has been or will be committed.” But under Bill C-13, wireless wiretaps can be authorized on the looser standard of “reasonable ground to suspect.”

Why not make police applications for a wireless wiretap clear the same, high legal hurdle as a traditional wiretap? And why is the government burying all of this inside an unrelated piece of legislation covering the highly emotional topic of cyberbullying? Parliament should be debating and voting on each measure separately, on its merits. Once again, the Conservative government is engaging in unnecessary legislative acrobatics. Time to cease and desist.

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