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.
Last month a paper that I wrote with Adam Molnar and Erik Zouave was published by Internet Policy Review. The article, “Computer network operations and ‘rule-with-law’ in Australia,” explores how the Australian government is authorized to engage in Computer Network Operations (CNOs). CNOs refer to government intrusion and/or interference with network information communications infrastructures for the purposes of law enforcement and national security operations.
The crux of our argument is that Australian government agencies are relatively unconstrained in how they can use CNOs. This has come about because of overly permissive, and often outdated, legislative language concerning technology that has been leveraged in newer legislation that expands on the lawful activities which government agencies can conduct. Australian citizens are often assured that existing oversight or review bodies — vis a vis legislative assemblies or dedicated surveillance or intelligence committees — are sufficient to safeguard citizens’ rights. We argue that the laws, as currently written, compel review and oversight bodies to purely evaluate the lawfulness of CNO-related activities. This means that, so long as government agencies do not radically act beyond their already permissive legislative mandates, their oversight and review bodies will assert that their expansive activities are lawful regardless of the intrusive nature of the activities in question.
While the growing capabilities of government agencies’ lawful activities, and limitations of their review and oversight bodies, have commonalities across liberal democratic nations, Australia is in a particularly novel position. Unlike its closest allies, such as Canada, the United States, New Zealand, or the United Kingdom, Australia does not have a formal bill of rights or a regional judicial body to adjudicate on human rights. As we write, “[g]iven that government agencies possess lawful authority to conduct unbounded CNO operations and can seek relatively unbounded warrants instead of those with closely circumscribed limits, the rule of law has become distorted and replaced with rule of law [sic]”.
Ultimately, CNOs represent a significant transformation and growth of the state’s authority to intrude and affect digital information. That these activities can operate under a veil of exceptional secrecy and threaten the security of information systems raises questions about whether the state has been appropriately restrained in exercising its sovereign powers domestically and abroad: these powers have the capability to extend domestic investigations into the computers of persons around the globe, to facilitate intelligence operations that target individuals and millions of persons alike, and to damage critical infrastructure and computer records. As such, CNOs necessarily raise critical questions about the necessity and appropriateness of state activities, while also showcasing the state’s lack of accountability to the population is is charged with serving.
Read the “Computer network operations and ‘rule-with-law’ in Australia” at Internet Policy Review.
Last month, Public Safety Canada followed through on commitments to review and consult on Canada’s national security framework. The process reviews powers that were passed into law following the passage of Bill C-51, Canada’s recent controversial anti-terrorism overhaul, as well as invite a broader debate about Canada’s security apparatus. While many consultation processes have explored expansions of Canada’s national security framework, the current consultation constitutes the first modern day attempt to explore Canada’s national security excesses and deficiencies. Unfortunately, the framing of the consultation demonstrates minimal direct regard for privacy and civil liberties because it is primarily preoccupied with defending the existing security framework while introducing a range of additional intrusive powers. Such powers include some that have been soundly rejected by the Canadian public as drawing the wrong balance between digital privacy and law enforcement objectives, and heavily criticized by legal experts as well as by all of Canada’s federal and provincial privacy commissioners.
The government has framed the discussion in two constituent documents, a National Security Green Paper and an accompanying Background Document. The government’s framings of the issues are highly deficient. Specifically, the consultation documents make little attempt to explain the privacy and civil liberties implications that can result from the contemplated powers. And while the government is open to suggestions on privacy and civil liberties-enhancing measures, few such proposals are explored in the document itself. Moreover, key commitments, such as the need to impose judicial control over Canada’s foreign intelligence agency (CSE) and regulate the agency’s expansive metadata surveillance activities, are neither presented nor discussed (although the government has mentioned independently that it still hopes to introduce such reforms). The consultation documents also fail to provide detailed suggestions for improving government accountability and transparency surrounding state agencies’ use of already-existent surveillance and investigative tools.
In light of these deficiencies, we will be discussing a number of the consultation document’s problematic elements in a series of posts, beginning with the government’s reincarnation of a highly controversial telecommunication subscriber identification power.
Earlier this year I had a book chapter, titled “Stuck on the Agenda: Drawing Lessons from the Stagnation of “Lawful Access” Legislation in Canada” published in Law, Privacy and Surveillance in Canada in the Post-Snowden Era. The book was edited by Michael Geist and is freely available in .pdf format from the University of Ottawa Press. The edited collection brings together many of Canada’s leading thinkers on privacy and national security issues, with authors outlining how Canadian-driven intelligence operations function, the legal challenges facing Canadian signals intelligence operations, and ways to reform Canada’s ongoing signals intelligence operations and the laws authorizing those operations.
The book arguably represents the best, and most comprehensive, examination of the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) in recent history. While not providing insiders’ accounts, many of the chapters draw from access to information documents, documents provided to journalists by Edward Snowden, and publicly available information concerning how intelligence operations are conducted by Canadian authorities. In aggregate they critically investigate the actual and alleged intelligence practices undertaken by Canadian authorities.
My contribution focuses on the politics associated with Canada’s lawful access legislation, and identifies some of the political conditions that may precede successful opposition to legislation that expands or reifies both domestic and foreign intelligence surveillance practices. Specifically, the chapter begins by outlining how agenda-setting operates and the roles of different agendas, tactics, and framings. Next, it turns to the Canadian case and identifies key actors, actions, and stages of the lawful access debates. The agenda-setting literature lets us identify and explain why opponents of the Canadian legislation were so effective in hindering its passage and what the future holds for opposing similar legislative efforts in Canada. The final section steps away from the Canadian case to suggest that there are basic as well as additive general conditions that may precede successful political opposition to newly formulated or revealed government surveillance powers that focus on either domestic or signals intelligence operations. You can read the chapter on pages 256-283.
Download the book from University of Ottawa Press
Image credit: Book Cover from Michael Geist (Ed.) (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0) http://www.press.uottawa.ca/law-privacy-and-surveillance
American and British officials have been warning with an increasing sense of purported urgency that their inability to decrypt communications could have serious consequences. American authorities have claimed that if they cannot demand decrypted communications from telecommunications providers then serious crimes may go unsolved. In the UK this danger is often accentuated by the threat of terrorism. In both nations, security and policing services warn that increased use of encryption is causing communications to ‘go dark’ and thus be inaccessible to policing and security services. These dire warnings of the threats potentially posed by criminals and terrorists ‘going dark’ have been matched over the years with proposals that would regulate encryption or mandate backdoors into any otherwise secure system. Comparatively little has been said about Canada’s long-standing efforts to inhibit end-user encryption despite the federal government’s longstanding efforts to restrict the security provided to Canadians by encryption.
This article outlines some of the federal government of Canada’s successful and unsuccessful attempts to weaken cryptographic standards. It starts by explaining (in brief) what communications encryption is, why it matters, and the implications of enabling unauthorized parties to decrypt communications. With this primer out of the way, we discuss why all of Canada’s mobile telecommunications carriers agree to implement cryptographic weaknesses in their service offerings. Next, we discuss the legislation that can be used to compel telecommunications service providers to disclose decryption keys to government authorities. We then briefly note how Canada’s premier cryptologic agency, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), successfully compromised global encryption standards. We conclude the post by arguing that though Canadian officials have not been as publicly vocal about a perceived need to undermine cryptographic standards the government of Canada nevertheless has a history of successfully weakening encryption available to and used by Canadians.
Lawful access legislation was recently (re)tabled by the Government of Canada in November 2013. This class of legislation enhances investigative and intelligence-gathering powers, typically by extending search and seizure provisions, communications interception capabilities, and subscriber data disclosure powers. The current proposed iteration of the Canadian legislation would offer tools to combat inappropriate disclosure of intimate images as well as extend more general lawful access provisions. One of the little-discussed elements of the legislation is that it will empower government authorities to covertly install, activate, monitor, and remove software designed to track Canadians’ location and ‘transmission data.’
In this post I begin by briefly discussing this class of government-used malicious surveillance software, which I refer to as ‘govware’. Next, I outline how Bill C–13 would authorize the use of govware. I conclude by raising questions about whether this legislation will lead government agencies to compete with one another, with some agencies finding and using security vulnerabilities, and others finding and fixing the vulnerabilities such tools rely. I also argue that a fulsome debate must be had about govware based on how it can broadly threaten Canadians’ digital security. Continue reading