Image: Jamie McCaffrey
If you’re Canadian and ever wondered whether CSEC or the Mounties were spying on you, you’re in luck—there’s a computer platform that’s in early development to streamline the process of compelling your telco provider to give up their law enforcement request records on you.
The University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, at the forefront of cyber-surveillance research in Canada, is developing an automated request form to big telco companies, asking them if they’ve ever disclosed your user data to law enforcement.
Currently in the form of a template, Christopher Parsons, a postdoctoral fellow at the Citizen Lab, said his research team is developing, “a platform that other folks in Canada can then run with.” The hope being to give Canadians a user-friendly service to making privacy requests to telco companies known to peddle user data to the government.
“We’re looking to provide the technological infrastructure so that people can select their telecommunications carrier, be it Rogers, Bell, Telus, or Shaw," he said. "Then they will click what service it it is, then it will autofill [the request form].
“This isn’t ‘hey pretty please send me my information’—that’s not the idea,” Parsons continued. There are actual legal grounds for requests in the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA).
Per those Canadian privacy laws, all Canadians have the right to request that companies explain and disclose the personal information they retain about that citizen, for how long, what purposes, and when they disclosed it. Especially when those companies have connections to Canada—like telco giants Rogers or Bell, both headquartered in Canada.
In the wake of revelations that Canadian law enforcement made 1.2 million requests to telco companies for user data, Canadians are finally starting to get concerned about mass-surveillance.
Unlike the inaccessible Access to Information Request program for Canadian government requests, with it’s laughable wait times and political interventions, something like an app will make pressuring the telco companies banking your data much easier.
Though Canadians typically do care way less about state surveillance than Americans, at least according to one study by Ipsos Reid conducted after the Snowden leaks, this kind of technology simplifies the user experience and goes a long way toward encouraging interest.
The plan is to first create the platform and then inspire other citizens to further the technology and develop it for things like smartphones.
“If someone decides they want to take what we’ve done and race ahead of us that’s great,” said Parsons, especially since the Citizen Lab is a “small shop,” only capable of so much. At the moment, the researchers have no plans to design a smartphone app themselves. At least not until writing a secure platform.
According to Parsons, creating the request platform isn’t the hard part, it’s securing the content from the prying eyes of government or hostile users.
“The hard part is, we could pound this out probably pretty quick, but we want to make sure the way we’re doing it is in the most privacy protective way possible," he said. "Canadians don’t want to worry the Citizen Lab or anyone who picks up this tool are in any position to use or know anything about them. We want to do this right.”