Groundswell against Lawful Access gathering

big brother Harper

Image courtesy The Progressive Rambler

One of the outcomes of Cyber-Surveillance in Everyday Life was the formation of a group of scholars, civil rights advocates and privacy experts determined to do something about the lawful access legislation contained in the Conservatives’ omnibus crime bill.

Our opening public event, entitled (Un)Lawful Access: Cyber-Surveillance, Security & Civil Liberties, featured a panel discussion on the encroaching nature of digitally mediated surveillance, particularly that conducted by the state. It was standing room only as Micheal Vonn, of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, Jacob Appelbaum, (aka @ioerror), Christopher Prince, from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner, Lisa Autsin, from University of Toronto’s Law Faculty, and Bell’s Dave McMahon discussed the current state and future direction of online surveillance. At the end of the workshop, it was clear that we couldn’t just leave it at a discussion: something had to be done.

At about the same time, OpenMedia was considering launching a national campaign against lawful access. Our groups came together to strategize and support a broad based grassroots effort to halt – or at least alter – the most egregious aspects of the bills. OpenMedia started a petition opposing mandatory Internet surveillance, calling the lawful access legislation a “scheme” that “is poorly thought out, costly, and will leave our personal information less secure. Unchecked mass surveillance is a breach of our fundamental right to privacy.”

After a couple months of consultation, drafting and editing, we logged our concerns in a letter to Stephen Harper, pointing out the serious negative implications for the privacy rights of Canadians. This is more worrisome because, due to the fast-track nature of the omnibus approach, these will not receive the public airing and scrutiny they need and deserve. As the Canadian Internet Policy & Public Interest Clinic, one of the letter’s signatories, notes: “This type of expansion in surveillance power should only be undertaken with great care and where demonstrably necessary.”

I wrote about the problems of lawful access in its last incarnation under the Conservatives. It appears very little has changed in the upcoming legislation. Our letter highlights various troubling aspects of the lawful access bills as we last saw them, including:

  • The ease by which Canadians’ Internet service providers, social networks, and even their handsets and cars will be turned into tools to spy on their activities further to production and preservation orders in former Bill C‐51 – a form of spying that is bound to have serious chilling effects on online activity and communications, implicating fundamental rights and freedoms;
  • The minimal and inadequate amount of external oversight in place to ensure that the powers allotted in these bills are not abused;
  • Clause 16 of former Bill C‐52, which will allow law enforcement to force identification of anonymous online Internet users, even where there is no reason to suspect the information will be useful to any investigation and without adequate court oversight; and
  • The manner in which former Bill C‐52 paves the way to categorical secrecy orders that will further obscure how the sweeping powers granted in it are used and that are reminiscent of elements of the USA PATRIOT Act that were found unconstitutional.

Lawful access is part of what David Lyon, Andrew Clement and others have called “the new transparency” whereby state and corporate actors require ever more information, ever more data transparency, from us, while increasingly obscuring their activities and data trails from the public. In a democracy, this just doesn’t compute.

While we have yet to hear from Harper himself, our letter has nevertheless attracted a modest amount of attention. BoingBoing featured it after Chris Parsons, another of the signatories to the letter, wrote about it on his blog. OpenMedia plugged it and Ars Technica mentioned it in a comprehensive piece on lawful access legislation.

Our amplified voices add to the growing media attention and groundswell of opposition to this type of state-sponsored surveillance. The Globe & Mail published an op/ed piece linking the spying legislation to a 9/11 paranoia hangover, stating that lawful access legislation “will compel Internet service providers to disclose customer information to authorities without a court order. In other words – blunter words – law enforcement agencies will have a freer hand in spying on the private lives of Canadians.”

Writing in The Toronto Star, Michael Geist notes real problems in the legislation’s “three-pronged approach focused on information disclosure, mandated surveillance technologies, and new police powers.” It “raises genuine privacy and free speech concerns, particularly given the fact that the government has never provided adequate evidence on the need for it, it has never been subject to committee review, and it would cost millions to implement yet there has been no disclosure on who would actually pay for it”

Even The National Post is worried.

And Canadians are taking notice. Today, the OpenMedia petition today has more than 45,000 signatures. In releasing our letter, we academics and advocates joined not only OpenMedia but a national coalition of citizens and organizations working to expose the negative aspects of these bills, including the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the BC Civil Liberties Association, and all of Canada’s privacy commissioners, federal and provincial. That is really the heart of democracy: people. Raising their voices. Working together. Getting involved. And if we can take a page out of the late Jack Layton’s playbook, it’s this: change is possible. Not only possible, but necessary. So let’s go people.

Contact your MP here.

Sign the Stop Spying petition here.

Write a letter to the editor here (or your local paper).

Raise a little hell however you know how. And stay tuned for our video on Lawful Access, which I helped produce, featuring prominent Canadian academics and advocates speaking against increased state surveillance without adequate legal constraints and protections.

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