The federal government and Canada's police forces are hoping that new legislation will allow them to catch up to the criminals who can now plot their activities with undetectable technologies such as PIN and SMS messages on their cell phones.
Reintroducing legislation that was tabled last year but died on the order paper, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government said it's time to modernize Canada's legal framework and ensure that all communications between suspected criminals can eventually be intercepted by police.
"High tech criminals must be met by high-tech police," David MacKenzie, the parliamentary secretary for public safety, said at a news conference.
The new legislation, entitled the Investigating and Preventing Criminal Electronic Communications Act, is aimed at "safe havens," technology that allows criminal activities to take place away from any possible detection.
The president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, Toronto Police Chief William Blair, said the new rules would eventually give officers access to communications such as encrypted Blackberry PIN messages.
"We see changes in communications technologies almost on a daily basis, it's a great challenge for law enforcement," he said. "We now need access to these new technologies."
Charles Momy, who represents Canada's front-line officers, said the Internet has "changed the face of criminal activity."
"Unfortunately, the laws just haven't kept pace," said the president of the Canadian Police Association.
The legislation would force service providers to ensure all of their new technologies can be intercepted by police. While major Internet providers already have systems that allow police interception, even small providers would have to comply with the requirements within three years.
Existing communications technologies such as PINs would not be directly affected by the legislation, but manufacturers would need to make them intercept-ready as they modernize the software or introduce updated versions, federal officials said.
In addition, the government said it would compensate manufacturers that are forced to retrofit their existing technologies.
A spokesperson for Research in Motion did not comment on the proposed legislation and its impact on encrypted Blackberry communications.
In a recent interview, the deputy chief of the Calgary Police, Murray Stooke, said that as it stands, police officers can get warrants to intercept communications, but they "have problems getting to the information" if it has been encrypted.
Michael Geist, a professor of law at the University of Ottawa, said that laws will always struggle to keep up with technology. He said it is up to police forces to get the necessary resources to fight criminals, regardless of which communications devices they use.
"It's always a bit of a cat-and-mouse game," said Prof. Geist, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law. "It's not the laws that are letting down law-enforcement in many situations, it's the necessary resources and expertise."
He added that if governments obtain backdoor access to encrypted messages, there is a cost "in terms of all of the other information that is made vulnerable, at a time when companies and individuals are legitimately looking for appropriate security and privacy in their communications."
The government insisted that the new legislation would not affect the privacy rights of Canadians, by pointing out that law-enforcement authorities would still need court orders to intercept communications or obtain data related to a suspect's location from a service provider.