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Canada’s New Cyberbullying Bill Will Give It Unnecessary Surveillance Superpowers

A new bill will allow any “public officer” or “peace officer” the freedom to request personal data from telecom companies.

by Patrick McGuire
May 9 2014, 12:30pm

Image via Creative Commons

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

The Canadian Conservatives’ controversial cybercrime bill, C-13, is in its final stages of making its way into law this week. And, if you’re concerned about your privacy online as a Canadian, it’s definitely a subject you need to get familiar with. Quickly.

So here: C-13 is causing a minor ruckus right now, mainly because it will allow any “public officer” or “peace officer” the freedom to request personal data from telecom companies, while providing those same telecom companies legal immunity for turning over data. Meaning that if a government officer requests to see your personal data from an ISP, they can do that pretty easily, and you can’t sue anyone over it.

It’s hard to imagine why the government needs extra powers for retrieving subscriber data, when there are roughly1.2 million requests for subscriber data per year anyhow. As Justin Ling, a sometimes VICE contributor, wrote for theNational Post, C-13 would permit anyone from “tax agents to sheriffs, reeves, justices of the peace, CSIS agents, and even, yes, mayors” to request consumer data from telecoms. This opens the door for an easy Rob Ford joke (and we all know how fun those are to make) but the consequences of giving so many bureaucratic bozos the keys to Canadians’ private data seems like a wild and unnecessary overreaction.

Google and the NSA Communicated: Are You Surprised? Read more here.

In November, when word of C-13 first started to spread, I wrote that the “Conservatives are using cyberbullying to normalize online surveillance,” which is a position that I stand by today. Last month,an arrest was made in the Amanda Todd case. A man named Aydin Coban has been accused of extorting young girls online into performing sexual acts through their webcam; behavior that I reported on extensively in the wake of Amanda’s suicide in late 2012.

Coban was taken into custody by authorities in the Netherlands and may be facing extradition to Canada. This arrest, evidently, was possible without the powers of the controversial Bill C-13. In fact, it isn’t clear what role, if any, Canadian authorities had in the arrest. Further, it would be speculative and unfair to say why it has taken authorities so long to arrestanyonein connection to Amanda Todd’s death, given that she was quite clearly harassed by a ring of merciless extortionists, but there are many more individuals out there who practice the same sadistic craft of harassment.

Carol Todd, Amanda’s mother, was unable to provide comment to VICE for this article, but as she told the CBC: “There were multiple people in those chat rooms… So this would hopefully be the first layer of many layers that they could uncover."

To be fair, C-13 may make the process of uncovering said layers of criminality easier, as it would introduce what has been called a “streamlined warrant,” a phrase that sent alarm bells ringing throughout the opposition parties late last year, as it intends to lower the standard of retrieving data to the very broad “reasonable grounds for suspicion.” Clearly our government is sending out a massive amount of data requests as it is, and telecom companies are already very secretive about the ways that they cooperate with government. And, if a task force did have a lead on a sexual extortionist preying on teenage girls, you would think that under our current system, where information is being freely provided in the first place, they wouldn’t encounter much resistance.

So, is this really about cyberbullying?

I covered the cases of Rehtaeh Parsons and Amanda Todd very closely. Both of these tragic deaths had a commonality: a lack of action from law enforcement. Nova Scotia, Rehtaeh’s home province, reacted to the teenage girl’s death by starting a cyberbullying task force. Somewhat similarly, Laureen Harper, Steve’s wife, suddenly became a public advocate on the issue. The deaths of both Amanda and Rehtaeh caused a shockwave of outrage in Canada, and the government responded in their own public-facing way. But we have to ask: is C-13 the correct next step?

We hear, for example, that the newly revealed powers of the NSA could have stopped 9/11. Therefore we need mass surveillance. That’s what Michael Hayden, former head of the NSA, argued as recently as last week, when I saw him debate Glenn Greenwald in Toronto. But that argument, at least when it comes to 9/11, was debunked in late December by CNN. The problem with 9/11 was not thelack of law enforcement powers, but rather the lack of information sharing between law enforcement agencies, and following the right clues and hints to stop the plot in its tracks.

9/11 is obviously a grandiose example, but the principles are the same. Does our government really need more surveillance powers to stop what they call cyberbullying? Or do our law enforcement agencies need to give more of a shit about young girls who are being harassed, blackmailed, and sexually assaulted by boys and men who they know in real life, or who are preying on them online from foreign countries?

From all I have seen, I believe our bigger problem is police apathy.

That said, I reached out to Glenn Canning today, Rehtaeh’s father, who will be speaking before the Standing Committee on C-13 next week. He sees the C-13 issue somewhat differently, and in an email, he told me:

“My stance on Bill C-13 needs to be understood from the perspective of someone who has suffered the loss of a child. Our family watched for months as a devastating photo of our daughter spread throughout our community. It showed up repeatedly to haunt her every time she attempted to put her life back on track at a new school or to make new friends.

Everyone had it, everyone was talking about. No one, not one person, did anything about it or tried to stop it. Unbelievably the police didn’t make a single attempt to hold anyone accountable for this. They told us at the time it was not a police matter. The told us the people who did this to Rehtaeh were not breaking the law.

I respect privacy as much as any Canadian. I served in our Armed Forces for 25 years to protect the rights we as Canadians enjoy.

Social media, the Internet, text messaging, email, shares, and numerous other means of mass communication has dramatically changed the way we reach out to each other. When Rehtaeh died her mother shared a post on Facebook that literally spread throughout the world in a matter of hours. It’s that fast and that powerful.

In the wrong hands it’s just as fast and it’s just as strong. Someone in Rehtaeh’s shoes won’t be helped unless the speed of that help is as viral as the problem.

I do believe, if properly enforced, the amendments in Bill C-13 would have made a difference to our daughter.

Someone has to draw a line in the sand and that line has to address the age we live in and the technology we use. I’ve read a lot of criticisms of Bill C-13 and have yet to find one that offers a working solution as an alternative.

It seems so out of place to complain about privacy while our children terrorize each other to death for Likes on Facebook.”

Quite understandably, Glen and I have had different reactions to the invasions of privacy that C-13 promises to execute. To be clear, I don’t have children, so I cannot even begin to imagine the weight of grief and outrage that he and Rehtaeh’s mother, Carol Todd, and every other parent who has lost a child must feel. Especially when cyberbullying, and online extortion are involved.

But as he himself says, the stupefying police inaction was a major factor that led to Rehtaeh’s life spinning out of control. And I’m not so sure that C-13 will necessarily kickstart that systemic problem of police apathy into gear. More surveillance is not going to magically create better police, and until we have a prevailing attitude among Canada’s law enforcement agencies that online harassment is a sophisticated and dangerous crime that requires intelligent investigation and compassionate responses to complaints from families like Amanda or Rehtaeh’s, I can’t imagine how C-13 will make any of us better off.

Follow Patrick McGuire on Twitter: @patrickmcguire