Deep in the bowels of the RCMP’s Ottawa headquarters, thousands of Mounties are scanning the Internet for signs of wrongdoing. They read every blog post and comment written by Canadians, hunting for clues. They watch every YouTube video we upload, scrutinizing the shaky footage for incriminating evidence. Eventually, something pops: a kidnapped child in the blurry background of an Instagram picture! An anonymous post on Tumblr containing information known only to a wanted felon! The Mounties pull the I.P. address of each suspicious uploader and immediately contact the Internet service provider associated with it. All they need now is the given name of the subscriber assigned to that unique I.P., and they can swoop in for a quick arrest. But the Internet service provider can’t be bothered. “Do you have a warrant?” they ask. Thwarted by indifferent corporations and pre-digital legislation, our cyber-Mounties twiddle their thumbs, waiting for judges to sign off on court orders while criminals escape into the ether…
The above scenario, of course, exists only in a fantasy that Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has been selling to Canadians for months. First he told us that we either stood with his Internet snooping bill or “with the child pornographers.” Then he said his Internet snooping bill would have helped police identify and track Luka Magnotta sooner than they did. But government memos released yesterday to the CBC under access to information confirm what critics of the C-30 have been saying for months: Toews has nothing.
Bill C-30 wouldn’t have made an iota of difference in preventing Luka Magnotta’s alleged crimes or in bringing him to justice sooner. Yes, Magnotta posted tons of suspicious, possibly criminal content to the Internet well before the murder of Jun Lin. But did the lack of a law like Bill C-30 prevent police from connecting this content to Magnotta? Hardly. If police want to know the name behind an Internet pseudonym, they can just ask an ISP, and the name will be handed over to them 95 per cent of the time, without a warrant, according to RCMP data. Besides, Magnotta’s name was no secret–he publicized it, along with other aliases, compulsively. The sad fact is that until Magnotta (allegedly) killed a guy, he was of no particular interest to police, regardless of what he put on the Internet. And I don’t necessarily fault the authorities for that.
As I’ve written before, there are tons of weirdos making crazy threats online, and no conceivable police force has the resources to investigate them all. Perhaps when Magnotta uploaded videos in which he appeared to be killing kittens, he should have been flagged for an investigation, but that assumes that our police are somehow able to keep an eye on all this stuff in the first place. They can’t. A whopping 72 hours of footage is uploaded to Youtube every minute.
To believe that C-30 could have saved Jun Lin is to believe that police have the magical ability to pluck drops of criminal content from the oceans of data we create every day. No police force has a limitless supply of critical eyeballs to do this. But you know who does? The Internet.
“With enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” Those famous words were spoken by Linux creator Linus Torvlads. He was talking about creating computer software, but what if we were to apply a method like crowdsourcing to a problem like crime? With enough eyeballs watching the Internet, crimes might also prove shallow. An online vigilante group was indeed tracking Magnotta for months, and tried to convince police to take up the case. But no-one was sure what jurisdiction was responsible for Magnotta’s alleged animal cruelty, and the case was ignored.
If Vic Toews legitimately wants to know how Jun Lin’s murder might have been averted, and how police can modernize for a digital world, he should stop trying to curtail our privacy rights and look at the evidence before him.
Follow Jesse Brown on Twitter @JesseBrown