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Telecoms refuse to come clean about whether they are helping the government to spy on law-abiding Canadians

Citizens left asking “what have they got to hide?” after major Canadian telecoms refuse to answer questions put to them by leading privacy researchers & civil liberties groups

Of the 16 telecom companies sent the letter, only 10 provided a response as of March 5, 2014 (two days after the deadline). Those that did respond generally refused to answer the specific questions put to them, instead often resorting to vague generalizations about their privacy policies. The sole exception was indie provider Distributel which asked for more time to give a more detailed response.

The telecom firms refused to give specifics as to how long they retain information about their subscribers, the policies they use in evaluating government requests for data, or whether the government pays them for handing over their customers’ private data. However Telus did suggest that a government-pays approach to accessing private data might cut down on the overly-broad requests for information they receive. Most of the telecom firms avoided giving any details as to what private information they’ve been supplying to government agencies.

Reacting to the telecom companies response, Dr. Christopher Parsons said: “It's deeply unsettling that Canadian telecommunications companies have been so reticent in disclosing the conditions under which they provide Canadians' information to state authorities. The largest telecommunications companies in the world that operate in the United States and further abroad are increasingly informing their customers about how often state authorities request and gain access to subscribers' telecommunications data, all without jeopardizing investigative techniques or endangering national security. We intend to follow up with these companies to try and get the answers that researchers, policy analysts, civil liberties organizations, and the public require to evaluate the legitimacy of current, and of proposed, state surveillance practices."

“It’s hugely concerning that these companies have refused to give basic answers about whether or not they’re helping the government to spy on us,” says OpenMedia.ca Executive Director Steve Anderson. “They’re showing an appalling lack of respect for their customers, who are already paying some of the highest prices for telecom service in the industrialized world. Despite these high prices we can’t even get simple reassurances that they’ll protect our information from potentially illegal collection by government authorities. For many Canadians, the telecom companies’ silence means they must have something to hide. If these companies want to protect their brand reputation, they need to come clean.”

The letter was sent by a dozen of Canada’s leading privacy experts, led by Toronto-based researcher Dr. Christopher Parsons of the Citizen Lab, who has published a detailed account of the telecom companies’ response today. Groups signing on to the letter included OpenMedia.ca, along with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, and Pen Canada.

These groups are all members of the Protect Our Privacy Coalition which has just launched a hard-hitting video highlighting how legislation proposed by Justice Minister Peter MacKay would grant telecom firms immunity for handing over Canadians’ private information to authorities without a warrant. U.S. telecom firms were caught red-handed last year helping the government spy on their customers.

The researchers are now planning to follow up find out exactly why the telecom companies are so reluctant to provide answers about their co-operation with government surveillance. They may also ask the Federal Privacy Commissioner of Canada to clarify whether Canadian law permits or mandates companies to "make readily available ... specific information about ... policies and practices relating to the management of personal information" as it relates to state access to telecommunications data.

This initiative comes against the backdrop of shocking revelations of blanket government surveillance of the online activities of law-abiding citizens. In recent months Canada’s foreign signals intelligence agency, Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), was found to have spied on thousands of innocent Canadians using airport Wi-Fi. They also partnered in a massive illegal U.S. spying operation on Canadian soil during the Toronto G-20 summit. And thousands have already spoken out about a new online spying bill that would let a range of authorities spy on Canadians’ private lives without a warrant.

The Protect our Privacy Coalition is calling for effective legal measures to protect the privacy of every resident of Canada against intrusion by government entities. Over 27,000 Canadians have spoken out about government spying in recent months at: https://openmedia.org/csec and http://OurPrivacy.ca

About OpenMedia.ca

OpenMedia.ca is a network of people and organizations working to safeguard the possibilities of the open Internet. We work toward informed and participatory digital policy.

Through campaigns such as StopTheMeter.ca and StopSpying.ca, OpenMedia.ca has engaged over half-a-million Canadians, and has influenced public policy and federal law.

About OpenMedia.ca’s privacy campaign

OpenMedia.ca led the successful StopSpying.ca campaign that forced the government to back down on its plans to introduce a costly, invasive, and warrantless online spying law (Bill C-30). Nearly 150,000 Canadians took part in the campaign. To learn more, see this infographic.

On October 10, 2013 OpenMedia.ca collaborated with over 40 major organizations and over a dozen academic experts to form the Protect Our Privacy Coalition, which is the largest pro-privacy coalition in Canadian history. The Coalition is calling for effective legal measures to protect the privacy of every resident of Canada against intrusion by government entities.

OpenMedia.ca and the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) recently announced they will work together to put a stop to illegal government surveillance against law-abiding Canadians. OpenMedia.ca has launched a national campaign encouraging Canadians to support a BCCLA legal action which aims to stop illegal spying by challenging the constitutionality of the government’s warrantless collection of data on Canadians’ everyday Internet use.



David Christopher
Communications Manager, OpenMedia.ca
[email protected]

More Information

  • The murky state of Canadian telecommunications surveillance. Source: Christopher Parsons
  • Proposed online spying bill would grant telecom firms immunity for handing over private information without a warrant. Source: Michael Geist
  • Privacy experts ask telecoms if they’re helping the government spy on Canadians. Source: OpenMedia.ca
  • New Snowden docs show U.S. spied during G20 in Toronto. Source: CBC News
  • Five highlights from the Canada-Brazil spying revelations. [Source: The Globe and Mail]
  • Privacy watchdog on spy agency’s data collection: ‘We want to find out more’. [Source: CBC News.mail.com/news/politics/privacy-watchdog-on-spy-agencys-data-collection-we-want-to-find-out-more/article12459998/">The Globe And Mail]
  • Canada’s spy agency may have illegally targeted Canadians: watchdog. [Source: National Post]
  • Inside Canada's top-secret billion-dollar spy palace. [Source: CBC News]
  • Data breach protocols deficient in 9 federal departments, watchdog finds. - [Source: CBC News]
  • Lawful Access back on the agenda this Fall? - Michael Geist.
  • The secretive CSEC agency has a staff of more than 2,000 and a budget of about $400 million. [Source: CBC News]
  • Surveillance expert Ron Deibert on the threat spy agencies pose for citizens.
  • Internet Law expert Michael Geist on why Canadians should be concerned about government spying.
  • Privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart says there are significant concerns about the scope of information that CSEC are reported to collect. [Source: CBC News]
  • In this article, The Globe and Mail describes the revelations about Canadian government spying as “disturbing and unacceptable”
  • This document, obtained by The Globe through Access to Information, shows how Minister MacKay authorized a top secret program to data-mine global ‘metadata’ in 2011.

OpenMedia works to keep the Internet open, affordable, and surveillance-free. We create community-driven campaigns to engage, educate, and empower people to safeguard the Internet. Take action now

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