Lawful Access Returns: Online Harms and Warrantless Access to Subscriber and Transmission Data

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For the better part of twenty years, law enforcement agencies in Canada have sought warrantless access to subscriber data that is held by telecommunications service providers and other organizations. The rationale has been that some baseline digital identifiers are needed to open investigations into alleged harms or criminal activities that have a digital nexus. Only once these identifiers are in hand can an investigation bloom. However, due to the time that it takes to obtain a relevant court order, as well as challenges in satisfying a judge or justice that there is a legitimate need to obtain these identifiers in the first place, these same agencies recurrently assert that an initial set of seed digital identifiers should be disclosed to officers absent a court order.

The Government of Canada has, once more, raised the prospect of law enforcement officers obtaining subscriber or transmission data without warrant when undertaking activities intended to “enhance efforts to curb child pornography.” This time, the argument that such information should be made available is in the context of combatting online harms. The government has heard that companies should include basic subscriber or transmission data in their child pornography-related reports to law enforcement, with the effect of law enforcement agencies getting around the need to obtain a warrant prior to receiving this information.

In this post I start by discussing the context in which this proposal to obtain information without warrant has been raised, as well as why subscriber and transmission data can be deeply revelatory. With that out of the way, I outline a series of challenges that government agencies regularly experience but which tend not to be publicly acknowledged in the warrantless access debates associated with child sexual abuse material (CSAM). It is only with this broader context and awareness of the challenges facing government agencies in mind that it becomes apparent that warrantless access to subscriber or transmission data cannot ‘solve’ the issues faced by agencies which are responsible for investigating CSAM offences. To develop appropriate policy solutions, then, we must begin by acknowledging all of the current obstacles to investigating these offences. Only then can we hope to develop proportionate policy solutions.

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Canadian Government’s Pandemic Data Collection Reveals Serious Privacy, Transparency, and Accountability Deficits

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Just before Christmas, Swikar Oli published an article in the National Post that discussed how the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) obtained aggregated and anonymized mobility data for 33 million Canadians. From the story, we learn that the contract was awarded in March to TELUS, and that PHAC used the mobility data to “understand possible links between movement of populations within Canada and spread of COVID-19.”

Around the same time as the article was published, PHAC posted a notice of tender to continue collecting aggregated and anonymized mobility data that is associated with Canadian cellular devices. The contract would remain in place for several years and be used to continue providing mobility-related intelligence to PHAC.

Separate from either of these means of collecting data, PHAC has been also purchasing mobility data “… from companies who specialize in producing anonymized and aggregated mobility data based on location-based services that are embedded into various third-party apps on personal devices.” There has, also, been little discussion of PHAC’s collection and use of data from these kinds of third-parties, which tend to be advertising and data surveillance companies that consumers have no idea are collecting, repackaging, and monetizing their personal information.

There are, at first glance, at least four major issues that arise out of how PHAC has obtained and can use the aggregated and anonymized information to which they have had, and plan to have, access.

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