Privacy commissioner denies Internet surveillance compromise with police

Jesse Brown on why the online spying bill made a comeback

Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart appears in Ottawa on March 1, 2012. Sean Kilpatrick/CP

Correction appended

Jim Bronskill, of The Canadian Press, has reported a weird story. He filed an access to information request and obtained an internal memo from the privacy commissioner’s office. In his words, it reveals this:

“The federal privacy watchdog is trying to help the Conservative government find a compromise in its contentious bid to bolster Internet surveillance powers.”

How strange. Strange for the Privacy Commissioner to be helping the state “bolster surveillance,” and strange for her to be doing so in the spirit of compromise. Why compromise with Bill C-30? “Lawful Access,”  which was rebranded the “Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act,” but is known widely as the “Internet Spying Bill,” was pronounced dead the prior spring, in a seeming victory for privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart, who opposed it from the start.

So, why cut a deal with a dead foe? Perhaps she didn’t.

“I reject the characterization of this as a compromise outright,” assistant privacy commissioner Chantal Bernier said in a phone interview with me yesterday. “Privacy is a fundamental right. You don’t compromise on fundamental rights.”

Of the unearthed memo, she tells me that the privacy commission was just “doing our homework. A legal and technical analysis. What we’re exploring is, if the warrant system is too cumbersome–which is unproven–is there then a way to preserve privacy under a new system?”

So there you have it. Typical media spin, right? To suggest the commish is caving in, when really she was just exploring her options. Wherever did Bronskill get that idea?

Maybe from this:

“My office appreciates the challenges faced by police officers in fighting online crime, with out-of-date tools and at a time of rapidly changing technologies.”

Letter from privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart to the media, Nov.7, 2012

Or from this:

“…help (us) find a middle ground between security and privacy.” 

Letter from assistant privacy commissioner Chantal Bernier to University of Montreal law professor Karim Benyekhlef, June, 2012

I can certainly understand why The Canadian Press reporter read the memo as he did, as “a blueprint solicited by the privacy commissioner’s office (proposing) new procedures to give police and spies key information about Internet users.”

At the very least, there is a conciliatory tone to the commission’s recent noises, and a direct acceptance of law enforcement’s repeated, yet unproved, claims that they don’t have the laws they need to catch bad guys online.

Why might this be happening? Well, if Bill C-30 is indeed dead, somebody forgot to tell the cops. Last October, on the heels of the suicide of Amanda Todd, Vancouver Police Chief Jim Chu exploited the public’s sorrow and confusion as a means to breathe new life into B-30. The bill, said Chu, who is also president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, would help police fight “cyber bullying,” although he neglected to explain how it might have made a difference for Amanda Todd (it wouldn’t have).

Commissioner Stoddart’s “acceptance” of the need for “new tools” to fight online crime? That was a response to Chu.

Follow Jesse on Twitter @JesseBrown

Correction: Jan. 10, 2013

A transcription error contained in the original post resulted in the phrase: “the new warrant system” being attributed to the assistant privacy commissioner. There is no new warrant system, and this post has been duly corrected.


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