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politics

Papers, Please

On "lawful access" and keeping the cops out of your email.

Photo by {a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/49889874@N05/4768870493/"}marc falardeau{/a} from the {a href="http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist"}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

Let’s play a little hypothetical game here. Imagine a sunny Friday morning in Toronto, strolling down Adelaide, maybe whistling a jaunty tune, then being stopped on the corner by officers with firearms and tactical gear. Your singing is suspicious, they less-than-tacitly suggest, and they want to see your identification. For your safety, you know.

The following year, you read news about how the same government that put those police on the streets, recently awarded a majority, wants to probe even deeper into your private life. They’ll put a bill through Parliament now that they’ve got largely unfettered power, and when it passes the police will be able to pore over your mail, messages, and telephone conversations. They’ll have the power to do it without a warrant, and it will all be in the name of public safety.

Do either of those scenarios sound familiar? The first probably should—it was the G20. The second may seem a little far-fetched, because the idea of the government rifling at will through your personal information in a supposed democracy is probably the most outlandishly fascist-sounding paradox since the days of Total Information Awareness. But if the government of Stephen Harper has its way, the second scenario will be as real as the first.

They call it “lawful access.”

Tucked into an omnibus crime bill that will also include legislation on mandatory minimums (since we’ll need to stuff those unnecessary mega-prisons somehow), the bill will do exactly what it says: give police full access to our personal information—including emails, phone numbers, addresses, and other details—by compelling internet providers to surrender it without a warrant. Affording the authorities sweeping powers of surveillance in order to “modernize” law enforcement in a digital age, it’s an alarmingly abyssal legislative rabbit hole, and it comes at an unacceptable cost to civil liberties. Like the armies occupying Toronto during the G20, or even the ultra-secret internment plans kept quiet by the RCMP, the bill will be yet another slap in our democracy’s face under the flimsy auspices, as always, of public safety.

All government white-washing aside, it’s hard to see it as anything but the 21st-century equivalent of agents standing in a room, your mail in a sack in front of them, armed with magnifying glasses and letter openers. “Where does it end?” asks Steven Anderson, executive director of OpenMedia.ca. “Are we going to let authorities look at our emails, our Facebook conversations, our phone discussions?” If the fun toys and talking points surrounding the recent Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police conference, held in Windsor, indicate a trend, then the answer would be yes, probably. Unless the people of Canada can stop their government.

OpenMedia.ca is at the forefront of policy and digital advocacy groups resisting this and other violations of digital, and civil, freedoms. Last year, they made news with their Stop the Meter campaign, rallying Canadians against usage-based billing that would tip consumer scales and drive up user fees in favour of big telecom providers. Now, the organization is spearheading a multimedia campaign to educate the public about this insidious, far-reaching threat, and with Parliament returning on September 19, time is of the essence.

If the legislation passes, Anderson continues, it “will essentially create a new mandatory internet registry of private data and force Canadians to pay for it. Canadians simply want an open and affordable internet; this legislation clearly takes this country in the wrong direction.”

The Conservatives won’t be tabling this legislation without facing tooth-and-nail opposition, though, both inside that chamber and out. “What we have been hearing from experts and citizens,” says Charlie Angus (Timmins—James Bay), the NDP’s privacy and digital affairs critic, “is that this new law gives the government and police way too much power to snoop into our lives. Canadians are right to feel that the Conservatives are not protecting their privacy and that we need to curb this bill.” According to the 2011 Canadians and Privacy Survey, 83 percent of Canadians want their ISPs, at a minimum, to directly ask permission before tracking any of their online behaviour or information.

As in past years, one of the major battlefields in confronting this latest act of authoritarian hubris is online—which will, going forward, be an interesting study in that government’s efforts to control that domain.

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