Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Why internet privacy matters

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.


Anonymous said...


Tell me, do they have child pornography in libraries? Al Qaeda recruitment discussion boards? Places that encourage cyber bullying, threats, and intimidation? Are libraries conduits for fraud?

Or perhaps, is your library analogy wholly inadequate?

privacylawyer said...

A good library will have all sorts of dangerous and offensive materials. But just because those materials are online doesn't mean it should be fair game for everyone's personal information. If the police have enough reason to believe that they should be able to tilt the balance of privacy in their favour, they should be able to convince a judge of it. If they can't, they shouldn't be entitled to it.

Anonymous said...

Most libraries these days have computers with net access, so yes. Not to mention the numerous books with information that could be deemed dangerous. You can buy knives, guns, ropes, poisons, and all manner of dangerous devices in a store. The analogy stands.

Tim Lash said...

David: Glad you're on this issue.

Can you please point us to a trustable Conservative statement that the proposed new internet surveillance powers (ref Geist et. al) will NOT be part of the 100 days program if they gain a majority?

Contempt (disrespect and erosion) or improvement in how we do democratic responsibility in Canada is THE most important question that's being run in this election.

Mr. Harper's apparent contempt for the Cdn Privacy Commissioners' 2009 concern and resolution urging careful Parliamentary review and justification of the proposed increased police surveillance scope and freedom is a test case.



Tim said...

I now see the internet surveillance provisions would be part of the 100 day omnibus bill:

"» Give law enforcement and national security agencies up-to-date tools to fight crime in today’s high-tech telecommunications environment;"

The concern continues, urged again 9 March by all Canada's federal, provincial & territorial Privacy Commissioners together http://tinyurl.com/3hzbg2f

Anonymous said...

To "Anonymous:" I find it interesting that you chose to post your comment anonymously. Nice that we can enjoy our privacy.

In any case, bill C-52 will not make it any easier to find the online websites and forums where pedophiles, terrorists, cyber bullies, etc. lurk and seduce. That will still require the dedication of officers trolling the internet to find these criminal elements. Once they have enough evidence gathered, they need only get a court order to gain access to IP addresses.

Also, having IP addresses readily available opens the door to hackers and the potential havoc they may cause with an individual's life/ID and would be vigilantes. A whole other can of worms now opened.

Laura L.

Anonymous said...

Canada will have to do the same as Sweden when this happened to them.

Read this:

Perhaps we need an equivalent IT Association of Canada to produce a similar solution. Alternatively, just use theirs: Polippix -- a live linux CD with Tor and Torbutton with Firefox, with automatic MAC address change on reboot.

Every Canadian will need one of these when they reintroduce and pass the new public surveillance laws under a Harper or Ignatieff regime. People forget that although he's a Liberal, he's also a security hawk. Just read his book "The Lesser Evil" and you'll see he has no gust to stand up to the creeping security state.

For a brief presentation, see:

hair loss treatment said...

interesting point... internet privacy do matter, but i don't think comparing it to the significance of a library is a bit too, well, not fair... libraries are organized, they house only certain informations or ones that they only obtain, unlike the internet that has everything or almost everything in it... i'm a mass comm major and i always believed that as internet starting to be the fourth medium of media, it should work both ways for the readers and the source, responsible usage should still be keep in mind cause even if there are internet privacy laws if it isn't use properly then its already a lost cost... sad we can't control the people using it...