Over the last couple of days, I've blogged a bit about the proposed legislation that came to be known as Bill C-52 in the last session of Parliament. (See: Canadian police state legislation needs closer examination, and Conservative majority would pass lawful access within 100 days. Also check out Michael Geist's excellent post: The Conservatives Commitment to Internet Surveillance.) Bill C-52 fell off the order paper when the 40th Parliament was dissolved for the current election, but I think it really needs to be extensively discussed in the current election. (I should note that this is not necessarily a partisan issue, since it was originally proposed by the Liberals many elections ago.)
The Internet is not quite like the real world. When you go to a library, you don't have to provide ID or leave a record of what you looked at or that you were even there. When you step into a store in the real world, you don't necessarily leave a trace of what you perused and what you bought (if you paid cash). You can send an anonymous letter to the editor of your local newspaper to voice an unpopular opinion without giving your name or any other identifying information. (They probably will not publish it, but that's beside the point.) But the Internet doesn't work like that.
Every device on the network has an IP address. IP addresses can be tied to an individual computer or a range of computers sitting behind a firewall or a router. Every mobile device, such as a cell phone or a smart phone, has a number of unique identifiers that it chirps out to the network that it's attached to. Every interaction that you have online, you can assume is being logged in some fashion in connection with that IP address. Many e-mails you send include in the headers the IP address of the computer it was written on.
It's just the nature of how networks work. That IP can perhaps be traced to you, to your household or to your employer. In most cases, where residential internet accounts are concerned, they are connected to the name and address of the account holder. With phones, that identifier is connected to the individual who owns the phone.
In short: Everywhere you go on the internet or with your mobile phone, you leave digital footprints. That's the nature of the modern, networked world. So what protects your privacy when you do anything online? The fact that whoever allocated that IP address or provides your cell phone service has to keep it confidential unless a judge decides that the public interest (or the state interest) overrides your privacy interest. That's why we have a Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada and why we have an independent judiciary. There is no absolute anonymity online, but there is effective privacy by obscurity because anyone who can connect your IP address to an individual is bound to keep it confidential unless a judge says otherwise.
However, Bill C-52 proposed to take that important balance away. It would give police forces and national security folks virtually unfettered powers to connect those otherwise anonymous footprints to an actual person (or small group of persons).
That is inconsistent with your rights to privacy and is dangerous to the free and open internet. Whoever is elected needs to know that privacy is something that all Canadians value.
I have heard that the Conservatives have said that they will not include Bill C-52 in their omnibus "get tough on crime" legislation they plan to pass within 100 days if re-elected, which is a good thing. This is something that needs a full debate in Parliament, in Parliamentary committees and in the public square.