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Public Safety Minister Vic Toews (left)and Justice Minister Rob Nicholson take part in a news conference to announce measures protecting children from internet predators, in Ottawa, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2012. (FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS/FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews (left)and Justice Minister Rob Nicholson take part in a news conference to announce measures protecting children from internet predators, in Ottawa, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2012. (FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS/FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

As Tories storm the firewalls, opposition reaches for water cannon Add to ...

The Harper government has waded into the fraught debate over public safety versus personal privacy with legislation that would give police new powers to watch the Web.

A government that scrapped the long gun registry and the mandatory long-form census because they violated personal freedoms nonetheless believes that tackling cybercrime requires new tools to identify and track online offenders.

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“Simply put, criminals have moved beyond 20th-century technology,” Justice Minister Rob Nicholson declared at a news conference Tuesday. “We need to ensure that law enforcement has the tools necessary to fight crime in the 21st century.”

To which Ann Cavoukian, Ontario’s Privacy Commissioner, replied: “Nonsense.” She called the bill “a major intrusion into our personal lives.”

At issue is the need to equip police with the tools they require to combat cybercrime – from child exploitation to marketing fraud to terrorist plots – while protecting ordinary citizens from digital snooping by the state. Common ground appears hard to come by.

Bill C-30, which the Conservatives have named the Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act, would require telecommunications service providers to give police a person’s name, address, phone numbers, e-mail address and Internet Protocol address – which identifies a person on a computer – upon request and without a warrant.

Companies would also be forced to adapt their equipment so that authorities could monitor the actions of subscribers. Those authorities would have to obtain a judicial warrant, however, before they could track the mobile-phone movements and online activities of people suspected of committing a crime.

The bill is supported by police forces and by provincial and territorial attorneys general. Government officials said similar or more intrusive measures have already been adopted by the United States, Britain, Australia and numerous European countries.

But the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada remains deeply concerned by the bill.

“The outstanding issue is warrantless access to personal information,” said Assistant Privacy Commissioner Chantal Bernier in an interview. Federal and provincial privacy commissioners object to giving police the power to obtain identifying data without a search warrant.

The new law “could impact on any law-abiding Canadian,” Ms. Bernier said. And whatever laws other countries might pass, “we are Canada, and there are established privacy principles in place” to protect citizens unless a judge grants otherwise, she said.

The government says the new law would bring consistency to practices already in place. Some phone companies and Internet service providers already co-operate with police; others don’t.

The costs of upgrading equipment to meet the new data storage and tracking requirements would largely be born by the telecommunications companies themselves and their subscribers, although there is a lengthy phase-in period.

But critics say the police are already doing a good job of tracking and breaking up porn rings, and that whatever new powers of scrutiny they do seek should require a judge’s assent.

“The basis of a free and democratic society is the right to due process and the right to privacy,” NDP MP Charlie Angus said in the House on Tuesday. “The government has declared open season on average Canadians.”

OpenMedia.ca, which promotes Internet freedom, says it has gathered more than 80,000 names on a petition opposing the legislation.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews rebutted that “there is nothing in the bill that would allow police to snoop on an individual's private conversations or even to follow a person's activities on the Web. All that has to be done through a judicially authorized warrant.” He urged the Opposition to read the bill before condemning it.

Mr. Toews created a furor Monday when he declared in the House of Commons, in response to a question from an Opposition MP, that “he can either stand with us or with the child pornographers.” Mr. Toews would not retract that comment, when asked about it by reporters, though he softened his language.

“If Canadians, as a nation, do not take steps” to end the proliferation of online child pornography, “this proliferation will continue,” he said at the news conference. “And that is simply unacceptable.”

Ms. Cavoukian, the Ontario privacy commissioner, said she “was so offended” by Mr. Toews’ statement in the House. “But what it showed to me was the weakness of their case.”

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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