Is a Canadian's cellphone account his or her castle? It isn't now. But it should be.
Under long-standing laws, if police enter a dwelling without a search warrant, or wiretap a landline telephone conversation without judicial authorization, there are serious legal consequences. Most Canadians would expect similar penalties to be imposed if their privacy is invaded through their wireless phones.
But a bill that a House of Commons committee began studying this week actually includes a clause that grants protection and immunity to those who take and hold on to information that has been illegally obtained from people's cellphones and cellphone accounts.
Bill C-13 is called the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act. The name is intended to refer to cyberbullying, though Carol Todd, the mother of a well-known teenage victim of cyberbullying, Amanda Todd, said on Wednesday that she did not want a bill dealing with that social ill to also contain elements touching on the unrelated matter of electronic surveillance by government agencies. She's right.
Much of Bill C-13 is the federal government's latest stab at what is known as "lawful access" legislation – in other words, creating new terms for government access to people's electronic communications or documents that otherwise would be unlawful.
One overreaching change in the bill is the terms on which police can ask someone – a wireless carrier, for example – to hand documents over voluntarily. Among other things, the bill says that "a person who preserves data or provides a document ... does not incur any criminal or civil liability for doing so."
Canada's wireless carriers, as this newspaper was shocked to discover last year, have quietly had built into their CRTC licences a document called the Solicitor-General's Enforcement Standards. It essentially obliges the carriers to hand over information about their customers to the authorities, on request – no judicial warrant required.
If Bill C-13 is passed as it now stands, a wireless carrier hoping to be scrupulous about its customers' privacy will find it harder than ever to resist the requests of the police. Who, after all, could turn down an offer of exemption from "any criminal or civil liability"?