Last week I, along with a collection of Canadian experts and civil liberties groups, sent letters to many of Canada’s leading telecommunications companies. Those letters ask the companies to explain why, how often, and under what conditions they provide information to government authorities. Such information is pressing given the routine reappearance of telecommunications surveillance legislation on the government’s Order Paper. Specifically, lawful access legislation has been introduced by successive federal governments, with the requested power extensions justified on grounds that authorities cannot effectively police online criminal behaviour, on grounds that telecommunications companies do not always provide subscriber information when government authorities request it, and on grounds that such legislation will prevent terrorism/serious crimes/kidnapping/pedophilia/cyber bullying.
Only with empirical data about how, and why, state authorities presently access telecommunications data will Canadians be able to knowledgeably ascertain whether these expanded state powers are needed. Moreover, with data in hand about companies’ disclosures of subscriber information consumers can make informed choices when choosing their telecommunications providers. Specifically, such information would let consumers compare companies’ privacy practices and choose companies’ services based on privacy (along with other consumer) grounds. While many have been supportive of this public letter initiative, almost all the people that I have spoken to about the letters have voiced their skepticism that the companies would be motivated to respond. I remain optimistic that the companies will respond to demonstrate their privacy bona fides and tell their side of the story. Moreover, the requests for information about how and why state agencies access telecommunications data have been amplified today from two different sources. Continue reading
Telecommunications services providers that offer Internet and phone service play central roles in the daily lives of Canadians. The services that these companies provide are essential for contemporary living; we rely on these services to access our email, make or receive our phone calls and text messages, check and update our social media feeds, and figure out how to get where we are going by way of GPS. Our lives are predominantly channeled through these companies’ digital networks, to the extent that Canadian telecommunications service providers are functionally the gatekeepers Canadians must pass by before accessing the Internet, or phone networks, at large. Today, Canadian scholars and civil liberties organizations have come together to ask that many of Canada’s most preeminent telecommunications companies disclose the kinds, amounts, and regularity at which state agencies request telecommunications data pertaining to Canadians.
Canadian state agencies often request access to the subscriber and telecommunications data held by these Canadian companies, as befits the companies’ privileged roles in our lives.  Sometimes access is gained using a court order, sometimes it is not. Sometimes requests are for circumspect amounts of information, and other times for greater volumes of data. To date, however, interested Canadians have had only vague understandings of how, why, and how often Canadian telecommunications providers have disclosed information to government agencies. Given the importance of such systems to Canadians’ lives, and the government’s repeated allegations that more access is needed to ensure the safety of Canadians, more data is needed for scholars, civil rights organizations, and the public to understand, appreciate, and reach informed conclusions about the legitimacy of such allegations.
Our call for telecommunications transparency is in line with actions taken in the United States, where politicians such as Representative Markey have successfully asked telecommunications service providers to explain the types of requests made by American state agencies for telecommunications data, the regularity of such requests, and the amounts of data disclosed.  Moreover, American companies are developing more and more robust ‘transparency reports’ to clarify to their subscribers how often, and on what grounds, the companies disclose subscriber information to American state authorities. There is no reason why similar good practices cannot be instantiated in Canada as well.
Over the past decade, Canadians have repeatedly heard that law enforcement professionals and state security agents need enhanced access to telecommunications data in order to go about their jobs. And Canadians have read about how our own signals intelligence service, the Communications Security Establishment Canada, has been and continues to be involved in surveillance operations that ‘incidentally’ capture Canadians’ personal information.  Despite these developments in Canada, there is not a substantially greater degree of actual transparency into how and why Canadian telecommunications service providers disclose information to agents of the Canadian government.
It is in light of this ongoing lack of transparency surrounding telecommunications providers’ disclosure of information to state authorities that we, a series of academics and civil rights groups, have issued public letters to many of Canada’s largest or most significant Internet and mobile communications providers. We hope that Canada’s telecommunications community will welcome these letters in the spirit they are intended: to make clearer to Canadians the specific conditions under which the Canadian government can and does access telecommunications information pertaining to Canadians, the regularity at which such access is granted, and the conditions under which telecommunications companies disclose information to state agencies.
The responses to these letters will enable superior scholarly analyses of Canadian state agency practices, evaluations of proposed federal legislation, and analysis of government agencies to currently access data that is held or transmitted by Canadian telecommunications companies. These responses will also better comparisons between the Canadian and American situations; too often, scholars, advocates, and policy analysts have been forced to transpose American realities onto what might be occurring in Canada. With real Canadian data in hand, it will be possible to more affirmatively differentiate between the state surveillance practices in Canada and the US, as well as to assess existing and proposed mechanisms that state agencies use to access telecommunications data pertaining to Canadians.
These letters were issued by letter mail and, where possible, by e-mail on January 20, 2014. We have requested that the companies respond, or provide a commitment to respond, by March 3, 2014. Below are .pdf copies of the letters that we sent; we look forward to hearing back from the recipients.
Letters sent to Canadian telecommunications service providers
Nicholas Koutros and Julien Demers, “Big Brother’s Shadow: Historical Decline in Reported Use of Electronic Surveillance by Canadian Federal Law Enforcement,” SSRN, February 3, 2013, accessed December 13, 2013, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2220740; Andrea Slane and Lisa Austin, “What’s in a Name? Privacy and Citizenship in the Voluntary Disclosure of Subscriber Information in Online Child Exploitation Investigations,” Criminal Law Quarterly (57) (2011); Ian Kerr and Daphne Gilbert, “The Role of ISPs in the Investigation of Cybercrime,” in Information Ethics in the Electronic Age: Current Issues in Africa and the World, ed. Johannes J. Britz and Tom Mendina (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc, 2004). ↩
The Canadian SIGINT Summaries includes downloadable copies, along with summary, publication, and original source information, of leaked CSE documents.
Parsons, Christopher; and Molnar, Adam. (2021). “Horizontal Accountability and Signals Intelligence: Lesson Drawing from Annual Electronic Surveillance Reports,” David Murakami Wood and David Lyon (Eds.), Big Data Surveillance and Security Intelligence: The Canadian Case.
Parsons, Christopher. (2015). “Stuck on the Agenda: Drawing lessons from the stagnation of ‘lawful access’ legislation in Canada,” Michael Geist (ed.), Law, Privacy and Surveillance in Canada in the Post-Snowden Era (Ottawa University Press).
Parsons, Christopher. (2015). “The Governance of Telecommunications Surveillance: How Opaque and Unaccountable Practices and Policies Threaten Canadians,” Telecom Transparency Project.
Parsons, Christopher. (2015). “Beyond the ATIP: New methods for interrogating state surveillance,” in Jamie Brownlee and Kevin Walby (Eds.), Access to Information and Social Justice (Arbeiter Ring Publishing).
Bennett, Colin; Parsons, Christopher; Molnar, Adam. (2014). “Forgetting and the right to be forgotten” in Serge Gutwirth et al. (Eds.), Reloading Data Protection: Multidisciplinary Insights and Contemporary Challenges.
Bennett, Colin, and Parsons, Christopher. (2013). “Privacy and Surveillance: The Multi-Disciplinary Literature on the Capture, Use, and Disclosure of Personal information in Cyberspace” in W. Dutton (Ed.), Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies.
McPhail, Brenda; Parsons, Christopher; Ferenbok, Joseph; Smith, Karen; and Clement, Andrew. (2013). “Identifying Canadians at the Border: ePassports and the 9/11 legacy,” in Canadian Journal of Law and Society 27(3).
Parsons, Christopher; Savirimuthu, Joseph; Wipond, Rob; McArthur, Kevin. (2012). “ANPR: Code and Rhetorics of Compliance,” in European Journal of Law and Technology 3(3).