Expert says lawful access bill will be used for surveillance

Suspects government will target aboriginal and environmental protesters

An expert in civil liberties says the contentious Conservative lawful access bill will likely not help solve crimes but instead will be used by government to target protesters.

Michael Vonn, policy director at the BC Civil Liberties Association, says both the United Kingdom and the United States have implemented similar bills and seen no discernable impact on combating crime.

“They increase surveillance,” says Vonn, noting that the bill may be used to watch demonstrators, especially aboriginal and environmental rights advocates.

The bill, now before a special Commons legislative committee, would give police the power to find subscriber data from telecommunications and internet service providers (ISPs) without a warrant, but there are broader implications around police surveillance.

In particular, concerns about the warrantless access to data from cellphones gathered from police by IMSI (international mobile subscriber identity) catchers. Such devices can collect IMSI data from cellphones in a group of people.

“The fact that the police do have technology that allows them to capture IMSIs, that means that they could theoretically, with that information, go to an ISP and get the identity of that person, even if the person’s just walking by innocently but they happen to be observing the crowd,” says Liberal public safety critic Francis Scarpaleggia.

Vonn is also concerned that the bill demands a lower burden of proof for the issuing of warrants.

“To just properly frame this, it’s a bit thick, really, for the police and the government to keep alluding to the fact that technology is making it more difficult for the police to get their information,” Vonn says. “They have more information like there’s never been information before. The question we have to ask is, What are the appropriate standards for accessing that now-giant repository of personal information?”

While the bill states that reporting will occur on how often the provisions are used, Vonn argues this is not enough because privacy protection must happen before information is accessed.

“We don’t want a report – we want protection,” Vonn says.

Dale Smith is a freelance journalist in the Parliamentary Press Gallery and author of The Unbroken Machine: Canada's Democracy in Action.

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