VANCOUVER – Police chiefs across the country are urging Ottawa to bring controversial Internet surveillance legislation back online, arguing that investigations involving cyber and cell phone technology are being hampered by antiquated laws.
The call from the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police for a reboot of Bill C30 comes ahead of a meeting by the provincial and federal justice ministers in Regina next week.
The group is also concerned Parliament will be closed down before the legislation is passed.
The association strongly supports the authority-granting laws, but its championing politicians have backed off pressing it through Parliament after a national outcry last winter that parts of the law would infringe on the public’s privacy.
“We have a fear that it will die on the order paper,” said Vancouver Police Chief Jim Chu, who is also the president of the association.
“And if it does, then our investigators will be constrained and victims will suffer greater harm because of that.”
Chu and his deputy chief, Warren Lemcke, answered questions and presented a video to reporters on Friday to defend their case for the legislation, called “Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act.”
The say it would enable officers to follow the electronic footprints left in crimes by compelling telecommunications companies to quickly provide basic Internet subscriber information. It would also help officers intervene in cyber bullying and make it a crime to use social media to injure, alarm and harass.
That issue has garnered national attention recently after B.C. teen Amanda Todd took her own life earlier this month after a protracted period of online victimization, although the chiefs would not comment on how this bill could impact that ongoing police investigation.
If passed, the law would grant access for police, intelligence and competition bureau officers to someone’s name, address, phone number, email, Internet Protocol address and the name of their Internet Service Provider, without a warrant.
It would also require the companies to have technical capabilities in place for use by police to intercept messages and conversations if they got the necessary legal approvals.
“This bill does not change anything with our lawful authority to intercept telecommunications — phone calls, emails, text messages, anything,” Lemcke said. “We simply can’t do that unless we have a warrant or an exigent circumstance.”
The bill sparked an online call to arms after its first reading last February. An Internet petition garnered more than 145,500 signatures opposing the legislation, while Federal Minister Vic Toews was targeted with an online attack.
Chu said the bill was to be referred back to a parliamentary committee, but that doesn’t appear to have happened.
A spokeswoman for the public safety minister would only say the government is thoroughly reviewing this legislation.
“At all times we will strike an appropriate balance between protecting privacy and giving police the tools they need to do their job,” said Julie Carmichael.
The chiefs’ association would prefer to see the wording of one part of the bill, section 34, changed so the public is assured their personal information will not be accessed when inspectors are checking a company’s compliance, Chu said.
Nonetheless, he contends the law would hasten the collection of vital information that will help them solve time-sensitive crimes, while containing built-in accountability measures that will safeguard against its abuse.
That includes narrowly limiting which officers will be permitted to ask telecommunications companies for the pertinent information, and requiring all requests to be made in writing so a record can be kept for review or audits, Chu said.
Should an officer use the law beyond what it’s intended for, that would be a criminal act that has repercussions, he added.
“In my 34-year (policing) history, I do not know of any situation where the police said, ‘Lets just go and wiretap somebody’s phone randomly,'” Chu said.
Right now, it’s voluntary for Internet companies to hand such data to police.
Lemcke gave the example of a case that frustrated officers in Vancouver, involving a suspect who dropped a cellphone after sexually assaulting a woman. It took 13 days for police to find out who owned the phone, and by that time the person had left the province, he said.
Police should absolutely have tools to do their job in a technological era, but the legislation as proposed invades Canadians’ privacy, said Steve Anderson at OpenMedia.ca.
Anderson is executive director of the grassroots organization, which spearheaded the online campaign opposing the bill last winter.
“The police can throw out stories about where they think this must be useful, but the important thing is that Canadians don’t agree with them,” Anderson said.
“We’ve seen no hard evidence that providing access to … private information will help solve crimes more quickly.”
Anderson said digital experts have discredited the notion that police can’t easily track people’s online activities when they have access to the information the bill would allow.
“If the government and police wish to target criminals, I think they should draft legislation that targets getting information from criminals, not law-abiding citizens.”