Technology, Thoughts & Trinkets

Touring the digital through type

Month: November 2011

The Anatomy of Lawful Access Phone Records

ACL 2006 - Phonebook  Canadian advocates, government officials, and scholars are all concerned about the forthcoming lawful access legislation. A key shared concern is that authorities could, under the legislation, access telecommunications subscription records without court oversight. Moreover, as a condition of accessing these records businesses might be served with gag orders. Such orders would prevent Canadians from ever knowing (outside of court!) that the government had collected large swathes of information about them. In response to concerns aired in public, the Public Safety Minister has insisted that the legislation would merely let police access “phone book” information from telecommunications providers.

I maintain that such assertions obfuscate the sheer amount of information contained in the records that authorities would collect. The aim of this post is to make clear just how much information is contained in a single lawful access “phone record”, demonstrating that the government is seeking information that grossly exceeds what is contained in the white or yellow pages today. As a result, I first provide an example phone record that resembles those in every phonebook in Canada and then offer an example of a lawful access record. Remember that such requests may be filed to multiple service providers (e.g. Internet service provider, web forum hosts, blogs, mobile phone companies, etc) and thus a swathe of records can be combined to generate a comprehensive picture of any particular individual. By the conclusion of the post it should be evident that information provided under lawful access powers is more expansive than the phone records government ministers allude to and lay bare those ministers’ technical obfuscations.

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Lawful Access, Its Potentials, and Its Lack of Necessity

Image by mattwi1s0n

New surveillance powers are typically framed using benevolent and/or patriotic languages. In the United States, we see the PATRIOT Act, the Stored Communications Act, and National Security Letters. Powers associated with this surveillance assemblage have been abused and people have been spied upon in violation of the law, bureaucratic procedure, and regardless of demonstrating real and present dangers. The UK has the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), which significantly expanded the capabilities of police and intelligence to monitor citizens in previously illegal ways. This legislation is also used improperly, as revealed in the yearly reports from the Interception Commissioner. In Canada, the Canadian government has publicly stated its intention to press ahead and introduce its lawful access legislation despite concerns raised by the public, members of the advocacy and academic community, and the information and privacy commissioners of Canada. Here, we can also expect uses of lawful access powers to overstep stated intents and infringe on Canadians’ rights, intrude upon their privacy, and injure their dignity.

Over the past months I’ve been actively involved in working with, and talking to, other parties about lawful access legislation. This has included speaking with members of the media, publishing an op-ed, and conducting various private discussions with stakeholders around Canada who are concerned about what this legislation may (and may not) mean. Today, in the interests of making public some of the topics of these discussions, I want to address a few things. First, I quickly summarize key elements of the lawful access legislation. Next, I note some of the potentials for how lawful access powers will likely be used. None of the potentials that I identify depend on ‘next generation’ technologies or data management/mining procedures: only technologies that exist and are in operation today are used as mini-cases. None of the cases that I outline offer significant insight into the operational working of stakeholders I’ve spoken with that can’t be reproduced from public research and records. I conclude by questioning the actual need for the expanded powers.

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