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Tories seek to widen police access online

Conservative Justice Minister Rob Nicholson speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa June 8, 2009.

Adrian Wyld

Police will have sweeping new powers to collect information about Canadian Internet users without a warrant, and activate tracking devices in their cellphones and cars under legislation proposed by the Conservative government yesterday and criticized by privacy advocates as excessive.

If the government's latest shot at introducing "lawful access" legislation - something successive governments have tried but failed to do for the past decade or so - succeeds, Internet service providers will also be forced to install monitoring technology on their servers to keep track of their users' online activities.

We must provide our law enforcement with the tools they need to keep our communities safe

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson and Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan yesterday introduced two bills - the Investigative Powers for the 21st Century Act and the Technical Assistance for Law Enforcement in the 21st Century Act - just before the House of Commons empties out until the fall session.

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"We must provide our law enforcement with the tools they need to keep our communities safe," Mr. Van Loan said. "This is a great day for the victims and their families who have been long calling for these legislative changes, and those who work tirelessly every day to ensure that when there is a threat to safety, police can intervene quickly."

However, critics point out that the onus is on law enforcement agencies to explain why they need these new powers.

"Nobody wants to create roadblocks for law enforcement, but there has been no evidence put forward that the current system has created any barriers, and I think it raises real concern where there is potential for abuse," said Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa who holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and e-commerce law. "That's why you have court oversight."

Mr. Geist noted that some major police investigations in the past few years - including the arrest of 18 Toronto-area terrorism suspects in 2006 - was very much dependent on the Internet, and progressed even under current legislation.

The bills introduced by the Conservative government yesterday are in some ways an evolution of an issue that began about a decade ago, when the Liberals tried to introduce similar legislation.

In 2007, public safety minister Stockwell Day said the government would not force ISPs to hand over personal information about their users to police without a warrant. Yesterday, though, the government proposed exactly that.

Liberal MP and public safety critic Mark Holland said police have to be able to keep up with criminals using new technologies, but added that any legislation must also weigh the impact on Canadians' privacy.

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"It can't be used ... to randomly go through people's Internet and e-mail records trolling for things," he said. "That raises all kinds of concerns."

But the proposed legislation appears to have at least one loophole. Because the cost of installing tracking technology is so high, large ISPs will be required to do it, but smaller service providers will get three years to comply fully. Therefore, for years to come, some ISPs will be able to monitor their customers' activities and some won't.

The laws being updated were originally written in the era of rotary phones

An RCMP spokesman declined to speak about the announcement, saying the force doesn't comment on proposed legislation. Chief Constable Jim Chu of the Vancouver Police Department issued a statement praising the bills. "We are pleased that this new legislation modernizes the law so that it keeps pace with the advances in telecommunications technologies," he said. "The laws being updated were originally written in the era of rotary phones."

A Bell spokeswoman said yesterday that the company has a long history of working with law enforcement agencies, but added that the government should recognize "the unique and disproportionate burden and responsibility placed on the telecom sector as a subset of the larger business community," and that the costs of policing shouldn't be shifted entirely to one industry. "Lawful access requirements should not stifle innovation, or unduly impede or delay our roll-out of new products and services, including extension of voice and broadband service to underserved communities," she said.

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