Bill C-51: An Attack on Privacy

Photo under CC license by Wikipedia Commons
Photo under CC license by Wikipedia Commons

Bill C-51 continues its high speed trip through Parliament, rocketing through the Commons and now being rushed through the Senate.

This bill has generated a level of controversy since its introduction in parliament, reminiscent of the outrage that accompanied the much-despised online spying bill brought in by former Public Safety minister Vic Toews. The government’s Anti-Terrorism Bill has been widely criticized for fundamentally changing Canada’s legal and security systems in a way that deeply compromises rights and freedoms.

The bill puts forward a remarkably broad definition of “security” that includes “interference” with “critical infrastructure” or with “the economic or financial stability of Canada.” This definition would allow an astounding array of activities to be susceptible to government scrutiny or interference. The bill includes provisions to criminalize speech that is divorced from any intent to commit “terrorist” activities. The expansion of “no-fly” lists and an extension of CSIS’s powers without a correlated expansion of review and oversight are additional issues of concern.

The list of activities that may “undermine the security of Canada”, as defined by Bill C-51, is accompanied by a fundamental change in the scope and scale of the state’s surveillance apparatus that constitutes nothing less than an attack on privacy. It is for this reason that, as privacy expert Michael Geist states, “virtually everyone in Canada’s privacy community opposes it.”

Photo under CC license by Flickr: Tamara Herman
Photo under CC license by Flickr: Tamara Herman

Embedded within the lengthy text of Bill C-51 is the “Security of Canada Information Sharing Act (SCISA).” The SCISA would allow information-sharing across 17 government departments for a wide range of purposes that fall outside of what most Canadians would consider even remotely related to “terrorism.” In one of the minor improvements to the bill, the government introduced an amendment to remove the word “lawful”, which would have captured “unlawful activities like illegal strikes or civil
disobedience within the scope of the new measures. Equally problematic is the fact that the SCISA would allow big-data propelled information sharing by government departments, taking advantage of weaknesses in the outdated Privacy Act.

In terms of accountability, the various intelligence review bodies themselves have stated that they do not have the means to keep up with the expanded role being proposed in C-51. Furthermore, the watchdogs have complained that they are not able to coordinate their review capabilities, which is an even bigger problem since the security agencies are doing more and more of their work jointly. And these are review bodies – only looking at things after the fact. The Harper Government got rid of the CSIS Inspector General, who flagged operational problems with the spy agency, in 2012. In FIPA’s submission on Bill C-51, we argue that even the successor to the infamous War Measures Act provides more opportunities for oversight and consultation than Bill C-51, and that would be in an actual time of war.

Professors Craig Forcese and Kent Roach’s in-depth examination of Bill C-51 includes a chapter on the SCISA in which they argue that the Act would authorize a “total information awareness” approach that constitutes a “radical departure from conventional understandings of privacy.”

Incredibly, Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien was not called as a witness in the Commons Committee hearings on Bill C-51, but was finally called to testify in the Senate. He told the upper house that the “bill would potentially lead to disproportionately large amounts of personal information of ordinary, law-abiding citizens being collected and shared. This sets up the prospect of profiling and Big Data analytics on all Canadians. In short, the means chosen are excessive to achieve the end.”

Furthermore, every single Privacy Commissioner in Canada – with the exception of New Brunswick – joined Therrien in signing a joint letter opposing the Bill, stating the SCISA would “significantly expand the power of the state to surveil and profile ordinary, law-abiding Canadians.” The letter points out that massive state surveillance “would be inconsistent with the rule of law in our democratic state and contrary to the expectations of Canadians.”

The government responded to growing opposition by proposing amendments, most of which have been widely dismissed as failing to respond to fundamental critiques of the Bill. Meanwhile, pressure continues to mount to scrap the Bill, with early support for the bill melting like spring snow once Canadians became more aware of what it actually contained. A recent Forum poll indicates that barely half of those surveyed supported stronger anti-terrorism laws, and of those who said they were aware of bill C-51, 56% disapproved of the bill while only 33 percent approved. The poll also found that 40% of people in the Conservative stronghold of Alberta now oppose the bill.

For more information, to write to your MP or sign a petition:


B.C. government’s ID Card ‘consultation’ literally won’t take no for an answer

The B.C. government last week announced a fast-tracked consultation process for the new BC Services Card and the government’s digital services strategy. The consultation will centre on a panel of randomly selected British Columbians, who will have until Christmas to hand in a report. Public input on the process must be submitted by August 22nd.

However FIPA, along with the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) are concerned that the proposed consultation needs major changes in order to make it meaningful. In a letter (available here) we highlighted a number of impediments to the incorporation of public input.

The biggest issue is that the panel is specifically denied the ability to recommend the Card program be stopped, even if it finds that is the best course of action. Secondly, British Columbians not selected for the panel will only be able to give their input electronically, in response to government-written scenarios. In essence, the public is not able to effectively participate in this so-called consultation, but rather can only choose from a set of government-sanctioned responses.

The BC Services Card is a key part of the BC government’s broader “e-government” strategy– a comprehensive identity management system meant to facilitate online access to government services and the integration of databases that contain citizen’s personal information. The government launched the cards in mid-February, but Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham insisted the government conduct a “fulsome” consultation before the next phase of implementation.

British Columbians need to be heard on this issue, and they should be able to express themselves as they see fit. That’s how the government gets the best advice from citizens – not by restricting what a citizen panel is allowed to conclude.

The fact the government won’t let the consultation recommend putting a stop to the program speaks volumes about how worried they are. If they genuinely want British Columbians to have a say, they would leave all options open.

The public only has until August 22nd to submit comments on how the consultation will operate. If you are concerned about the BC ID Card, take a look at the comments we submitted, and make sure your voice is heard by emailing your thoughts to by August 22.

To read media coverage of this issue, take a look at this article in the Vancouver Sun and in the Tyee.

Privacy groups demand halt to BC ID Card roll-out

The BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) and the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (FIPA) are calling for the BC government to put the brakes on the roll out of the BC Services Card.

The BC Services Card is a key part of the BC government’s broader “e-government” strategy – a comprehensive identity management system meant to facilitate online access to government services and the integration of databases that contain citizen’s personal information. Last month, the government announced that the new cards would be launched beginning in mid-February, even though the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner had not finished reviewing the program.

In a statement released today, Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham pointed to a number of shortcomings with the plan, and called for a halt to any further expansion of the Services Card without extensive public consultations on the risks and benefits of data linkage. And while they agree with the pause, the BCCLA and FIPA say that it will take more than a public consultation to fix what’s really broken in the government’s plan.

“This government has got to come clean on the card before we are all forced to use it,” said Micheal Vonn, BCCLA Policy Director. “British Columbians have been provided almost no real information about it, and the Commissioner herself says she was only given an ‘abbreviated time for review’ of the program.”

The BC government has a terrible track record when it comes to developing data systems. Just last month the Auditor General blasted the Ministry of Justice’s JUSTIN case management system for poor information security and inadequate measures to “ensure that only appropriate users accessed sensitive information.” Other recent IT flops include the Integrated Case Management system, which the Representative for Children and Youth called a “colossal failure,” and the BCeSIS student data system, which must now be completely replaced at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

See FIPA’s past updates for more information on these issues.

“The government’s performance on these projects is appalling on almost every level,” said Vincent Gogolek, FIPA’s Executive Director. “We need a public inquiry to get to the bottom of this pattern of privacy invasive, security weak and costly IT adventures, certainly before the latest one is launched.”