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Privacy commissioner questions federal plans for Internet surveillance

MICHAEL HAMMOND / CP | September 1 2006

Canada's privacy commissioner is questioning the need for proposed legislation that would allow police to spy on Internet users without obtaining a warrant.

"As privacy commissioner, I want to have a lot of questions answered about why this is necessary because, up to now, I haven't been convinced," Jennifer Stoddart said in an interview.

The minority Conservative government is expected to reintroduce the Modernization of Investigative Techniques Act this fall or next spring.

The bill, originally drafted by the previous Liberal government, was shelved when the government fell on a non-confidence motion last November. The Tories have promised to revive it.

Privacy advocates fear the bill would allow police to obtain personal information from Internet service providers simply by asking them for it.

The so-called "lawful access" bill became the subject of controversy this summer when Bell Sympatico changed the wording of its customer service agreement.

The company warned its customers in June that it can "monitor or investigate content or your use of your service provider's networks and . . . disclose any information necessary to satisfy any laws, regulations or other governmental request."

Other service providers have said they will have no option but to comply if the surveillance bill is passed.

Police officials argue the legislation is needed to help keep pace with increasingly sophisticated online criminals. The recent raids on a suspected Toronto terrorist cell, which included extensive tapping of e-mail exchanges, resulted in the arrest of 17 suspects.

A spokeswoman in Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day's office said the government is reviewing the bill, but has not made a decision about when it will be brought before the House of Commons.

The privacy commissioner said Canada has already begun to move toward "increased police intrusion" with its anti-terrorism legislation. The lawful access act, she said, marks another major shift in the laws governing personal privacy.

"What we see is the foreshadowing of a regime that could come in, which would allow for warrantless searches of telecommunications material," she said.

Stoddart, who met with Bell Sympatico officials after the company changed its customer service agreement, said she was satisfied that Sympatico is not taking liberties with customer information.

"I'm convinced, at this point, that Bell did this for reasons of greater transparency."

The company made the change to its service agreement to remind customers they should be prepared for serious consequences if they break the law online, she said.

Stoddart said the flurry of debate after the Bell Sympatico move is a signal companies might be preparing for the proposed bill.

"What we see is the foreshadowing of a regime that could come in, which would allow for warrantless searches of telecommunications material," she said.

Those who are concerned with the incoming law will likely have to wait for a specific privacy incident to occur before any surveillance law is challenged under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

"The fact that there might be a charter challenge wouldn't stop it from coming in," Stoddart said.

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