The CBC and the Canadian Press are reporting on comments made by RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson calling for warrantless access to internet service provider customer information. (Bob Paulson, RCMP boss, wants warrantless access to online subscriber info - Politics - CBC News)
Yes, this is a revival of the lawful access debates that have taken place intermittently over the past decade or so.
Lets take a close look at what he said and why he's wrong.
Police need warrantless access to Internet subscriber information to keep pace with child predators and other online criminals, says RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson.
The top Mountie said Wednesday that a Supreme Court of Canada ruling curtailing the flow of basic data about customers — such as name and address — has "put a chill on our ability to initiate investigations."
I don't disagree with that. But having to get a warrant to search someone's house also puts a chill on investigations.
"I'm all for warrantless access to subscriber info," Paulson told a security conference in Ottawa, comparing the process to his beat-cop days of entering licence-plate data into a computer and coming up with a vehicle owner's name.
"If I had to get a judge on the phone every time I wanted to run a licence plate when I was doing my policing, there wouldn't have been much policing getting done."
Whoa! This is an absurd characterization. Commissioner Paulson is either ignorant or disingenuous. The courts have held that you don't have an expectation of privacy -- vis-a-vis the police -- in your license plate information and your car registration information that it is connected to. The Supreme Court of Canada, in R v. Spencer (the case that Paulson clearly doesn't like or agree with), said very clearly that you have an expectation of privacy in your online customer data. In fact, the Court said at paragraph 50 of that decision:
"I conclude therefore that the police request to Shaw for subscriber information corresponding to specifically observed, anonymous Internet activity engages a high level of informational privacy."
And as Paulson should know, where there is an expectation of privacy, the police must get a warrant. It's that simple.
Mounting public concern
In June last year, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled police must have a judge's authorization to obtain customer data linked to online activities.
The high court rejected the notion the federal privacy law governing companies allowed them to hand over subscriber identities voluntarily.
The Supreme Court of Canada was not at all ambiguous about it. You and I have a reasonable expectation of privacy (which includes anonymity). In the absence of a production order from the Court or exigent circumstances, they police can't have it. (For a summary of the case, you may want to read this blog post.)
The Charter is the supreme law of Canada and the Supreme Court gets to have the final word. No amount of wishful thinking by the police will change that. Since their job is to uphold and enforce Canada's laws, they should start with that.
Police say telecommunications companies and other service providers — such as banks and rental companies — now demand court approval for nearly all types of requests from authorities for basic identifying information.
The Supreme Court judgment came amid mounting public concern about authorities quietly gaining access to customer data with little oversight or independent scrutiny.
Paulson said after his speech that he advocates giving police ready access to basic subscriber information while respecting the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
'We've been consistent'
"I think we've been consistent in recognizing that we are very respectful of the charter and people's charter rights and nobody is recommending that we go any further," he said. "But there needs to be some sort of administrative access to basic subscriber information."
No, they really haven't. Not at all. The Charter requires a warrant. Paulson wants a way around that fundamental legal fact that is rooted in the supreme law of our country.
The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police revealed in August that government officials were mulling just such a scheme — though it's not clear exactly how it would square with the court ruling.
The chiefs said a discussion paper spearheaded by the Department of Justice was presented to the federal, provincial and territorial cybercrime working group of senior officials.
The paper outlined three legislative options for allowing access to basic subscriber information:
- An administrative scheme that would not involve court approval.
- A new judicial order process or a tweak to the existing regime.
- A judicial order process for subscriber information with a greater expectation of privacy and an administrative, non-judicial one for less sensitive subscriber data.
Paulson said while the Internet is a marvellous boon to communication, education and commerce, it is also a place where a vast array of crime takes place, including rampant sexual abuse of youngsters.
Time for a public conversation
Children are "being hurt at a pace and a frequency that is alarming," the commissioner said.
"Technology is fuelling that. So now these people can encrypt their communications and they can exploit children for sexual purposes and it's a little harder to get at them from a police point of view."
Many people want the Internet to be completely free, without rules, Paulson noted. "That's fine if we don't want justice there."
The as expected "think of the children!" appeal. I'm surprised that he didn't mention the terrorists. It is worth noting that the RCMP Commissioner and the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police advocated for Bill C-30, which would have provided for warrantless access to customer data even for a parking ticket or even no crime had been committed.Also, nice straw man there, Paulson. Please show me the people who are contributing to the debate who call for the Internet to be "completely free, without rules." You won't find them. Your opponents in this debate do not question that police need appropriate powers to investigate online crime.
It's time for a public conversation about how best to prevent all kinds of exploitation in cyberspace, he said.
Allies in the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand are confronting the same issues, Paulson added.
"We're all struggling with this. It's hard to keep people safe on the internet right now.
The RCMP and the lobbying agency for Canadian police are obviously trying to revive a debate that has been definitively settled. If they want to try to make the judicial authorization process more efficient or to tweak the thresholds for getting customer information in the event of serious crime, I can help them with that. But when the police state things that are simply wrong about a subject matter they really should know very well, I'm going to call them on it.