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Canadian Cops Want to Search Your Mail

Canada’s chiefs of police are asking the federal government to expand warrantless access to telecommunications subscriber information, create a real-time information database, and allow them to open your letters.
Justin Ling
Montreal, CA
August 31, 2015, 9:30pm
William Mewes/Flickr

With a federal election in its home stretch, Canada's chiefs of police have issued a wish list of investigative powers they are hoping that the country's next prime minister can deliver — everything from allowing them to search Canadians' mail, to pulling back the curtain on anonymity online.

Earlier this month, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) adopted eight resolutions, calling for specific new powers to help them fight child pornography, cybercrime, drug dealing, and arms trafficking.


They say that a lack of cooperation from cell phone providers is limiting their power to catch drug dealers, and that forbidding cops from opening Canadians' mail means that the postal service is delivering "guns, grenades, a rocket launcher, stun guns, dangerous chemicals, and drugs such as cocaine, heroin and marihuana."

The resolution calls on the federal government to craft a warrant that allows police to intercept and search parcels and letters they believe contain contraband.

But one of the most controversial requests that the cop bosses are making involves how they go about identifying anonymous users online.

The resolution, adopted at a recent conference in Quebec City, is calling on Ottawa to introduce a database that gives police the power to strip Canadians' of their anonymity online.

As Motherboard reported last week, the proposal is a work-around for a 2014 Supreme Court decision that put an end to warrantless requests from police to Canada's telecommunications companies, seeking to pair users' IP addresses to their names, addresses, and phone numbers.

The resolution calls for "the creation of a reasonable law designed to specifically provide law enforcement the ability to obtain, in real-time or near real-time, basic subscriber information (BSI) from telecommunications providers."

Halifax-based privacy lawyer David Fraser calls the proposal "quite troubling."

He supports making it more efficient to make the requests, which are often instrumental for child pornography investigations, but he underlines that there still needs to be some form of judicial authorization.


"If it was easy, and if it was convenient, we'd be in a peace state," Fraser says.

Micheal Vonn, policy director at the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, says this sort of data that the police are requesting is fundamentally worrying.

"The simple fact is that the police want BSI of any kind because it is the key to finding out something significant and ordinarily private about an individual," she says. "To state the obvious, it's not being sought because it's insignificant. And that's precisely why we need the warrant process to protect the information."

Related: Canadian Police, Spies Eyed Hacking Team Tech — and the Law Now Makes it Easier to Acquire

As Canada is in the middle of closely-fought election campaign, VICE News reached out to the three main political parties to get their take on the CACP proposal.

The governing Conservative Party, which had tried to expand cops' ability to make these warrantless requests that were declared unconstitutional by the courts, said merely that "we have no plans to change laws on these matters."

A campaign spokesperson, however, added that "We will of course review any proposal from CACP."

The opposition NDP, currently leading in the polls, used the opportunity to dig at their chief political rivals.

A statement from member of parliament Charlie Angus, the party's main spokesperson on privacy issues, said privacy breaches at Canada's tax agency, a massive metadata-collection pilot program in the country's airports, and expansive lawful access legislation "are all contributing to Canadians' concerns that Stephen Harper's Conservatives have failed to respect their privacy rights and may have opened the door to greater abuse through ill-conceived legal reforms."


While the NDP didn't comment on the CACP proposal itself, they had previously opposed the Conservatives' legislation, bill C-13, which would have provided legal immunity to telecommunications companies that fork over Canadians' data without a warrant, had it not been for the Supreme Court decision which kiboshed those requests.

The Liberal Party did not respond to a request for comment. That party, however, did support C-13.

A separate resolution adopted at the conference also calls for greater investigative powers to investigate crime online. The police association says they are interested in new legislative efforts that would would allow them to obtain warrants to seize data hosted in foreign countries, and that they're looking for the government to "modernize" how they can obtain Canadians' data without a warrant.

When it comes to mail seizures, the chiefs are asking the government to grant them the ability to obtain a judge's approval to "seize, detain or retain parcels or letters".

Related: Civil Liberties and Media Advocates Have Filed A Legal Challenge to Canada's Anti-Terrorism Law

Another resolution is taking aim at 'dial-a-dope' operations — drug dealers who set up transactions over the phone — by either canceling or flooding drug dealers' phone lines.

The resolution identified four possible ways to deal with the customer-service-oriented drug dealers.

One idea was to have the telecommunications providers cancel the dealers' cell phone contracts outright. In the same vein, the CACP suggested going to the government telecommunications regulators and asking them to cancel service to these dealers.


The other two ideas would be significantly more intrusive.

The CACP drew some inspiration from telemarketers, suggesting that some sort of "denial of service technology" could interrupt those phone numbers.

"This can be accomplished through the use of auto-dialing computers that call the drug traffickers phone number with sufficient frequency to render the phone number unusable," the resolution reads. Currently, they note, the law forbids that sort of activity, so the federal government would have to pass specific authorizations.

Under current laws, police can often seize a suspect's car, cash, and even their home if they are convicted of various drug offences. Police now want that power to extend to Canadians' cell phone numbers.

In addition, the chiefs have called for the formal creation of a "Canadian Community Safety Information Management Strategy," or CCSIM. While there is little detail offered in the resolutions about exactly what that system would look like, it appears the CACP envisions more legal authority to request Canadians' information from other public safety agencies — even if they're not suspected of a crime.

Vonn raises CCSIM as a particular concern.

"This resolution has received very little comment and it's deeply concerning. Bottom line: the police chiefs are pushing for more of the public's personal information to be added to police databases and for broader disclosure of that information," she says, adding that the language in the resolution is vague.


While the plan says the CACP wants to "engage" with each province's privacy commissioner, Vonn isn't convinced.

"We will do our best to ensure that these 'engagements' are not closed-door events and that this proposal doesn't remain a near-secret until after it's a done deal," she says.

The tough-on-crime Conservatives are the most likely to match the cops' requests, although both opposition parties have been known to support various police reform proposals that expand police powers.

Follow Justin Ling on Twitter: @justin_ling

Photo via William Mewes