Tom Mulcair’s opening question was simple, though without context.
“Mr. Speaker, How can the Prime Minister justify the invasion of privacy of one million Canadians by his government?”
The NDP leader had teased the question to reporters earlier in the day. He was referring to revelations that federal law enforcement agencies make an average of 1,193,630 requests for private customer information from telecommunications firms each year. Chantal Bernier, Canada’s interim privacy commissioner, released the numbers and said telecom firms should have to disclose how many requests they actually fulfill.
Mulcair called the information requests an “abomination,” and promised to ask about it in QP. Stephen Harper responded with a familiar refrain.
“I obviously don’t accept the premise of that question,” he said. “What we do understand is that various Canadian investigative, law enforcement and other agencies will, from time to time, request information from telecom companies. They always do this, Mr. Speaker, in accordance with the law. They always seek a warrant when they are required to do so. And, of course, we expect the telecom companies to also respect the law.”
Mulcair emphasized that law enforcement agencies don’t require warrants to access the data. Both men are telling some form of the truth. The law calls for a warrant if necessary, but doesn’t necessarily call for a warrant. Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa who comments regularly on privacy law, wrote recently that existing law allows telecom firms to voluntarily disclose certain customer data without a court order as part of lawful investigations. But they can, if they so desire, also demand court orders.
Harper chose his words carefully. Law enforcement agencies “always seek a warrant when they are required to do so,” he said. But Mulcair’s only curious about those cases that don’t require court orders. So, once again, a parliamentary impasse is upon us.
The PM also suggested legislation on the table closes loopholes in privacy law. Mulcair, Geist and others claim the prospective laws would only make things worse—and, in Mulcair’s verbiage, “exculpate” telecom companies (i.e. let them off the hook). Hold on to your cell phones. This burgeoning debate should have parliamentarians bickering for weeks.