Canadian Cops Want a Law That Forces People to Hand Over Encryption Passwords

Experts say it might not be constitutional.

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Aug 16 2016, 5:45pm

Image: Flickr/Richard Minton

Encryption tools that keep your digital communications hidden from prying eyes are becoming more widespread, and Canadian police say they need a law that compels people to hand over their passwords so cops can access those communications.

The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP), a lobbying organization with membership from across the country, passed a resolution at its annual conference on Tuesday mandating that the group advocate for a law that would force people to provide their computer passwords to police with a judge's consent, CTV reported.

"To say this is deeply problematic is to understate the matter," said Micheal Vonn, policy director for the BC Civil Liberties Association. "We have all kinds of laws that do not compel people to incriminate themselves or even speak."

A law that compels people to give police access to their devices, which may contain messages, photos, and data that have nothing to do with any active criminal investigation, doesn't fit within Canada's current legal landscape and would be "tricky constitutionally," Vonn added.

"If an individual legitimately objects to handing over their password, that alone makes them criminal"

"I'd question whether this proposal is constitutional," said Tamir Israel, a lawyer for the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic at the University of Ottawa.

"It's rare to force people to help police investigate themselves, and for good reason," Israel continued. "It shifts the focus of criminal condemnation away from actual criminal activity and onto compliance. So if an individual legitimately objects to handing over their password, that alone makes them criminal."

The CACP has not responded to Motherboard's request for comment.

Recently, police across North America have been expressing concern over citizens "going dark"—using anonymity-boosting tools like the encrypted Tor browser to keep their communications a secret—and thus making the cops' job more difficult.

The CACP posted a report on "the challenges of gathering electronic evidence" from the International Association of Chiefs of Police as background for their annual conference, suggesting that the push for a law to get peoples' passwords is related to recent US cases like Apple's refusal to unlock an iPhone for the FBI.

The CACP is merely an advocacy body and resolutions they pass have no effect on the law of the land. Moreover, the organization has a history of asking for powers that go well beyond what the law currently allows.

At the CACP's 2015 national convention, the organization resolved to support the creation of a law that would allow police to access telecom subscriber information in real-time, and without a warrant. To date, no such law exists.

"This has been a standard component of what the chiefs of police do—they argue for laws that would make policing easier," Vonn said.

"But is it a good idea from a civil liberties perspective? No."