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John Ibbitson

If you worry about online privacy, pay attention to this debate Add to ...

Imagine there was a domestic phone book that, rather than landing with a thud on your doorstep, existed in cyberspace. What would that phone book look like?

It would have your name, address and home phone number, obviously. That’s what old-fashioned phone books always contained, unless you paid for an unlisted number.

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But this being 2012, it might also include your mobile number, your email address, and your IP address. (This is the number that identifies your computer to the Internet.) The thought makes you feel a bit uncomfortable, doesn’t it?

Sometime after Parliament resumes, Monday, the Harper government will introduce new “lawful access” legislation that, among other things, will allow police forces to acquire all that and more from your Internet service provider without a warrant. This has privacy commissioners across the country deeply concerned.

Ann Cavoukian, Ontario’s privacy commissioner, is hosting a conference in Toronto, Friday, to highlight what she believes are major violations of personal privacy rights contained in the bill. (Declaration: your correspondent will be speaking at the conference.) The privacy commissioners believe that the federal government should not be giving police the power to acquire detailed information about who you are online without a judge’s say-so. The government says that the new powers are necessary to deter crime and terrorism.

What could this mean to you? Let’s consider a hypothetical case.

The police are very suspicious of Jane Smithers. They think she’s up to no good. If the bill is passed, they will be able to compel Ms. Smithers’ Internet Service Provider to disclose her IP address, mobile number and other identifiers.

They will not have the right to start monitoring Ms. Smithers’ activity. That will require a judicial warrant. But let’s say a judge provides that warrant. Now police will be able to see what websites she visits. They will be able to track her movements, or at least the movements of her mobile phone. They’ll be able to see who she texts and emails. As it turns out, she emails you.

“This,” a government official speaking on background acknowledged, “is where it gets sticky.” Under the new law, police will be able to acquire your online and mobile ID without a warrant, just as they acquired Ms. Smithers’. But they will need a separate warrant to begin monitoring your activity.

Should the police have a right to know that much about you? Absolutely not, say the privacy commissioners. At the least, they want to require police to obtain a warrant before they can acquire any digital information about Ms. Smithers or you.

But simply knowing who you are is not a breach of your privacy, the Conservatives respond. They maintain the legislation empowers police to acquire nothing more than the 21st-century equivalent of what used to be found in the white pages.

In a world of digital clouds, criminals and terrorists will exploit new technology to evade detection. Reasonable citizens will want to equip police with the tools to fight back.

But reasonable citizens will also want to limit the ability of the state to snoop on you and me. So who should we be listening to: the government or the privacy commissioners?

Anyone who is worried about having their identity hacked, either by cyber criminals or the local constabulary, will want to follow this debate.



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