The outrageous practice of "bulk telephony collection" may well be on the way to its richly deserved end. Thanks should go not only to Edward Snowden, the U.S. National Security Agency contractor, who has disclosed vast numbers of secret documents. Credit is also due to an unlikely – yet logical – alliance in the United States Congress between liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans such as Senator Rand Paul.
Canada's equivalent has not been nearly as sweeping, but this country is hardly immune to warrantless collection of electronic data. There is little doubt that Canada's signals-intelligence agency, the Communications Security Establishment, is involved.
"Metadata" is the equivalent of an address, and a return address, on the envelope of an old-fashioned letter, which can be quite as informative (and thus equally intrusive if scrutinized) as the contents inside.
The CSE has not tried to vacuum up all the metadata of all electronic communications in Canada, as the NSA has done in the U.S. But Snowden documents show that the CSE has randomly picked up signals in Canada, such as by way of Wi-Fi in Canadian airports, to troll for communications that the agency finds interesting.
After Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. enacted a law called the Patriot Act. Sensibly, the Americans set a "sunset" clause, so that drastic measures wouldn't go on forever. The most recent such deadline is imminent.
Meanwhile, a three-judge panel of the federal appeal court in New York took a good look at the section of the Patriot Act that, in the eyes of the NSA, enabled that agency to order Verizon and other such companies to hand over all the metadata of electronic phone communications in the U.S. Never mind constitutionality. The court concluded that the section as written simply didn't authorize anything remotely so sweeping.
Liberals and libertarians in Congress are not inclined to fix this "gap," quickly or at all. Good for them. Let the authorities apply for ordinary search warrants based on old-fashioned reasonable grounds.
Communications Security Establishment, in Ottawa, take note and think again.