Practical Steps Towards Telecommunications Transparency

CorporationLast month I, along with a series of academic researchers and civil liberties organizations, asked Canada’s leading Telecommunications Services Providers (TSPs) to disclose how, why, and how often they provide telecommunications information pertaining to their subscribers to state agencies. We received responses from ten of sixteen companies a little over a month later. Many of the companies steadfastly refused to provide any information beyond assertions that they protected Canadians’ privacy, that they were largely prohibited from providing any specific information because of national security or confidentiality of investigative techniques reasons, and that the signatories to the letter would be better suited contacting the government directly.

Less directly, I’ve heard from a series of high-profile figures in Canada’s telecommunications industry and national security community. Some figures in the telecommunications industry expressed concern about Canadians’ privacy but indicated that they lacked the time, inclination, resources, or sufficient buy-in to ascertain what they could do to render their companies’ practices more transparent. TELUS is on record as stating they would “request the Government to clarify and limit the scope of current confidentiality requirements and to consider measures to facilitate greater transparency.” Members of the national security community worried about enhancing Canadians’ trust in what they do, but remained uncertain about what they could specifically recommend to their peers. Almost all the people I’ve spoken with have indicated that they would appreciate some kind of practical ‘here’s what could be done’ document that they could use to develop an internal business case for an expanded transparency regime.

This post offers some guidance for how companies can improve their transparency practices, along with why particular proposals should be adopted. Specifically, I identify three things that companies do in the order of least to most challenging tasks. They could disclose data retention periods, make their lawful access handbooks available to the public, and produce full-bodied transparency reports. Critically, the first two of these proposals would just require publicizing documentation that Canada’s TSPs already retain. After outlining all three proposals, I conclude by explaining why corporate transparency needs to be complemented by government accountability.

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The Murky State of Canadian Telecommunications Surveillance

Telephone PoleOn January 20, 2014 the Citizen Lab along with leading Canadian academics and civil liberties groups sent letters to Canada’s most prominent Internet service providers. We asked the companies to reveal the extent to which they voluntarily, and under compulsion, disclose information about their subscribers to state agencies, as well as for information about business practices and data retention periods. The requested information would let researchers, policy analysts, and civil liberties groups better understand the current telecommunications landscape and engage in evidence-based policy analysis of current and proposed government surveillance activities. The companies were asked to provide responses by March 3, 2014.

A considerable amount of attention has been given to state access to telecommunications data since January 20. Organizations such as the Globe and Mail wrote that Canadians deserve to know who is listening to their communications, and reporting by The Wire Report found that while telecommunications companies believed they might not be able to respond to all the questions in the letters, at least some responses might be provided without running afoul of government gag laws. However, The Wire Report also found that some sources believed they were forbidden from disclosing any information about the assistance they provide to government agencies, with one stating they were “completely resigned.”

At the same time as the letters were being examined by the companies, a series of high-profile telecommunications-related stories broke in the media. In the United States, leading telecommunications carriers released ‘transparency reports’ that put some information in the public arena concerning how often the companies disclose information to American state agencies. In Canada, there were revelations that the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) had surreptitiously monitored the movements of Canadians vis-a-vis mobile devices that connected to wireless routers. These revelations sparked renewed interest in the origins of CSEC’s data, whether Canadian telecommunications companies either voluntarily or under compulsion provide data to CSEC, the nature of CSEC’s ‘metadata’ collection process, and the rationales driving data exchanges between telecommunications companies and state agencies more generally. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada also tabled a report that outlined a series of ways to improve accountability and transparency surrounding state access to telecommunications data. Finally, MP Charmaine Borg, the New Democratic Party Member of Parliament for the riding of Terrebonne—Blainville in Quebec, issued a series of questions to the federal government that are meant to render transparent how federal agencies request information from telecommunications companies.

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More Voices Call for Transparency in Canadian Telecommunications

Ottawa - HDRLast 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

Towards Transparency in Canadian Telecommunications

Ethernet CablesTelecommunications 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. [1] 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. [2] 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.[3] 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. [4] 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


  1. 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).  ↩
  2. Eric Litchblau, “More Demands on Cell Carriers in Surveillance,” New York Times, July 8, 2012, accessed January 19, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/09/us/cell-carriers-see-uptick-in-requests-to-aid-surveillance.html; Brian X. Chen, “A Senator Plans Legislation to Narrow Authorities’ Cellphone Data Requests,” New York Times, December 9, 2013, accessed January 19, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/09/technology/a-senator-plans-legislation-to-narrow-authorities-cellphone-data-requests.html.  ↩
  3. Jesse Kline, “Vic Toews draws line on lawful access: You’re with us, or the child pornographers,” National Post, February 14, 2012, accessed January 19, 2014, http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2012/02/14/vic-toews-draws-line-on-lawful-access-youre-with-us-or-the-child-pornographers/; Jane Taber, “New cyberbullying laws should pass this spring, Justice Minister says,” The Globe and Mail, January 9, 2014, accessed January 19, 2014, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/new-cyberbullying-laws-should-pass-this-spring-justice-minister-says/article16253334/.  ↩
  4. Ian MacLeod, “Spy agency admits it spies on Canadians ‘incidentally’,” Ottawa Citizen, January 6, 2014, accessed January 19, 2014, http://www.ottawacitizen.com/news/agency+admits+spies+Canadians+incidentally/9356255/story.html.  ↩

[box style=”blue”]Note: This post first appeared on the Citizen Lab website[/box]

Lawful Access is Dead; Long Live Lawful Intercept!

Honest PhoneLawful access was a contentious issue on the Canadian agenda when it was initially introduced by the Martin government, and has become even more disputed as subsequent governments have introduced their own iterations of the Liberal legislation. Last year the current majority government introduced Bill C-30, the Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act. In the face of public outcry the government sent the bill to committee prior to a vote on second reading, and most recently declared the bill dead.

Last year I began research concerning alternate means of instituting lawful access powers in Canada. Specifically, I explored whether a ‘backdoor’ had been found to advance various lawful access powers: was Industry Canada, through the 700MHz spectrum consultation, and Public Safety, through its changes to how communications are intercepted, effectively establishing the necessary conditions for lawful access by compliance fiat?

In this post I try to work through aspects of this question. I begin by briefly unpacking some key elements of Bill C-30 and then proceed to give an overview of the spectrum consultation. This overview will touch on proposed changes to lawful intercept standards. I then suggest how changes to the intercept standards could affect Canadians, as well as (re)iterate the importance of publicly discussing expansions to lawful access and intercept powers instead of expanding these powers through regulatory and compliance backdoors.

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The Issues Surrounding Subscriber Information in Bill C-30

SIMThe most recent version of the Canadian Government’s lawful access legislation is upon us. The legislation expands the powers available to the police, imposes equipment- and training-related costs on Telecommunications Service Providers (TSPs), enables TSPs to voluntarily provide consumer information to authorities without a warrant, forces TSPs to provide subscriber data without warrant, and imposes gag orders on TSPs who comply with lawful access powers. Economic and civil rights costs are, as of yet, murky. Despite being an extremely lengthy piece of legislation, Bill C-30 lacks the specificity that should accompany serious expansions to Canadian policing and intelligence gathering powers.

In this post, I first outline a ‘subscriber data regime’ to discuss what does – and may – be entailed in accessing Canadians’ subscriber data. Second, I explain how subscriber data can be used for open-sourced intelligence gathering. Third, I argue that an administrative process of expanding subscriber identifiers is inappropriate. Finally, I articulate why warrants are so important, and why court approval should precede access to subscriber data. In aggregate, this post explicates the concerns that many civil advocates, academics, and technical experts have with access to subscriber information, why Canadians should be mindful of these concerns, and why Canadians should rebuff current efforts to expand warrantless access to subscriber information.

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