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Tag: Mobiles (page 2 of 4)

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]

Canadian Social Media Surveillance: Today and Tomorrow

Image by Maureen Flynn-Burhoe

After disappearing for an extended period of time – to the point that the Globe and Mail reported that the legislation was dead – the federal government’s lawful access legislation is back on the agenda. In response to the Globe and Mail’s piece, the Public Safety Minister stated that the government was not shelving the legislation and, in response to the Minister’s statements, Open Media renewed the campaign against the bill. What remains to be seen is just how ‘lively’ this agenda item really is; it’s unclear whether the legislation remains on a back burner or if the government is truly taking it up.

While the politics of lawful access have been taken up by other parties, I’ve been pouring through articles and ATIP requests related to existing and future policing powers in Canada. In this post I first (quickly) outline communications penetration in Canada, with a focus on how social media services are used. This will underscore just how widely Canadians use digitally-mediated communications systems and, by extension, how many Canadians may be affected by lawful access powers. I then draw from publicly accessible sources to outline how authorities presently monitor social media. Next, I turn to documents that have been released through federal access to information laws to explicate how the government envisions the ‘nuts and bolts’ of their lawful access legislation. This post concludes with a brief discussion of the kind of oversight that is most appropriate for the powers that the government is seeking.

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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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Amici Curiae on IMSI Catchers

Image by iDownloadBlog

Security, surveillance, and privacy researchers alike have been watching how authorities exploit cellular communications devices – often in secret, or absent sufficient oversight – for years. Research to-date has been performed by security researchers and hackers, social scientists, advocates, activists, and the curious, with contributions spanning hundreds of discreet investigations into technical capabilities and their social implications. Of late, a considerable amount of attention has been devoted to IMSI Catchers, which are devices that establish false mobile phone towers for the purpose of monitoring and tracking mobile phones without their users’ awareness.

Given the use of IMSI catchers by American authorities, a group of researchers and academics submitted an Amici Curiae (in their individual capacities) January 17, 2012 concerning the catchers. Specifically, the brief is in support of a defendant’s motion for disclosure of all relevant and helpful evidence withheld by the government based on a claim of privilege. The government, in this particular case, has admitted that the surveillance technologies used simulated a cell site but have refused to provide specific details of how this surveillance was conducted. We argue that a substantial amount of information surrounding IMSI catchers is already public and that, as a result, the secrets that the government is attempting to protect are already in the public domain. Moreover, the public interest is best served by “greater public discussion regarding these tracking technologies and the security flaws in the mobile phone networks that they exploit, not less.”

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