While it doesn’t necessarily mean that the controversy surrounding Lawful Access will stay dormant for now, it is a positive sign for those who fight for privacy rights.
The Public Safety Committee has recently recommended that things keep to the status quo for now. The news likely spells relief for privacy advocates in Canada who fought against Lawful Access for the better part of a decade now. Michael Geist noted the news with the following:
The committee’s much anticipated report on developing a road map for national security contains dozens of recommendations (my colleague Craig Forcese reviews many of them) including one on lawful access. It states:
That at this time, and following the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in R. v. Spencer, no changes to the lawful access regime for subscriber information and encrypted information be made, but that the House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security continue to study such rapidly evolving technological issues related to cyber security.
Given that Liberal MPs form the majority of the committee (the report contains dissenting reports from both Conservatives and NDP), the recommendation presumably reflects current government thinking on the issue. If so, it suggests that the government has not immediate plans to reform lawful access. Committee Chair Rob Oliphant says that police sought expanded powers, but that the argument was not yet “compelling.” Lawful access isn’t going away – the issue has been debated for years – but MPs are rightly unconvinced that there is a need for warrantless access to subscriber information.
Indeed, I’ve seen this debate surrounding Lawful Access as far back as 2005 when it was known as Bill C-74. At the time, Canadians fought legislation like this in an effort to fiercely. Proponents said the legislation was necessary because national security concerns trump civil rights like the right to privacy. The debates sparked classic remarks such as if you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear.
Opponents meanwhile demanded that if such wiretapping is so necessary, then there should be some sort of court oversight. In fact, one privacy commissioner remarked at the time that when a democracy begins to fail, privacy rights is often the first to be targeted.
Proponents would then shoot back saying that oversight is excessively burdensome and that police should have unfettered access for subscriber data regardless of user rights. Ultimately from there, battle lines were drawn at that point. While small bits of movement have since taken place, the positions were solidified. Bill C-74 ultimately died on the orderpaper due to the ensuing election.
In 2007, the Conservatives re-introduced Lawful Access. While Canadians held out hope that Lawful Access was a Liberal party thing, they were quickly brought back to reality that introducing anti-privacy bills isn’t exclusively a Liberal Party position. Once again, Canadians were pitted against the government as it tried to ram through Lawful Access. Once again, the bill died on the orderpaper thanks to another election.
In 2009, Lawful Access once again rose from the dead as further demands were made to introduce ISP level surveillance on users. Since the Conservative party boasted a majority government then, things started looking very dicey.
The Conservative party also used another weapon to try and push for the surveillance legislation: Amanda Todd. Canadians know the story quite well that Amanda Todd was bullied online to the point where she committed suicide. The Conservatives tried to say that with the surveillance legislation, such things would never happen again. This infuriated Todd’s mother, Amanda Todd. She demanded that the government stopped using her daughter as an excuse to crack down on Canadian privacy rights. This unexpected backlash caught the government off guard. Matters grew more controversial when the government ultimately attempted to silence her on the debate when voiced an opinion that wasn’t in line with the government. Ultimately, the legislation died on the orderpaper as well.
Politically speaking, one of the themes that comes out of these debates is that the governing party of the day often winds up spending political capital while pushing through these bills. Canadians have not been shy about voicing opposition to what they feel are attacks on their personal privacy over the years.
This latest news is certainly a positive sign that the Trudeau government might be considering the idea of not opening this can of worms again for now. Justin Trudeau did get elected in part because he has the image of being no ordinary politician. Pushing Lawful Access would help sully that image and make him look like just another politician who is willing to crack down on civil rights. Because of this, many Canadians can only hope he chooses not to go down this road which helped many other governments get voted out.