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Privacy: You need to know who is listening

Interim Privacy Commissioner Chantal Bernier.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Chantal Bernier, the Interim Privacy Commissioner, in a report issued on Tuesday, has rightly recommended that Canada's intelligence agencies should make public more informative annual statistics on the interceptions of communications that they perform on behalf of other federal-government agencies.

For example, this country's signals-intelligence agency, the Communications Security Establishment Canada, can only engage in surveillance of Canadians in Canada if the minister of defence grants an authorization; otherwise, CSEC's work is all about picking up signals from other countries. On the face of it, such an authorization is an exception. If such permissions are frequently granted, they are no longer an exception, but a habit. Solid numbers would give citizens some real sense of CSEC's habits.

As it happens, last week, a group of academics and civil-liberties organizations, led by Christopher Parsons, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto, sent out a long questionnaire to 16 Canadian telecommunications carriers. For example, it asks the carriers how the types of the authorities' requests break down, as among matters of child exploitation, terrorism, national security and foreign intelligence.

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There has been a growing realization that the authority for apparently numerous interceptions is not clearly based on a "lawful-access" regime more or less analogous to the traditional granting of search warrants, but rather on the conditions built into wireless carriers' licences to do business. The carriers' replies to the academics' questionnaire – if answered – might clarify the degree of their compliance, and why they think they are complying.

To its credit, Verizon, an enormous American telecom company, made public last week a "transparency report" on the requests it has received from law-enforcement agencies – more than 320,000 in 2013. The figure is shocking. Canadian telcos should similarly reveal how many requests they've received from Canadian authorities. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner deserves praise for pushing this country in the direction of greater openness. Transparency, privacy and secrecy can never be fully reconciled, but a better balance is possible.

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