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The Canadian Government’s Plan to Sell New Spying Powers to Citizens

The proposed measure has been defeated again and again.

Canada's government is taking a forum for citizens to sound off about its spying powers and flipping it into an opportunity to sell Canadians on new and overbroad police capabilities, according to a new watchdog report.

In September, Trudeau's Liberals made good on a promise to open a public consultation on national security and released two documents, a green paper and a background document, explaining the issues at stake to Canadians at a time when the government is ramping up its efforts to thwart domestic terrorists. These included hot topics such as the difficulties police face when dealing with encrypted devices and issues surrounding data retention.

However, according to the watchdog report, the government's framing of the issues is selling Canadians on a police power that has been shot down again and again by the courts and the public: warrantless access to subscriber information from telecom companies.

Read More: Canada's Police Want Laws That Will Give Them 'Real Time' Access to Your Data

"Successive federal governments have sought to legislatively enshrine a state power to access subscriber identification data from telecommunications companies," Citizen Lab researcher Christopher Parsons and Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic staff lawyer Tamir Israel write in their report. "Such legislative initiatives would have facilitated access to such data on an indiscriminate basis and without any judicial authorization or control."

"All of these attempts have proven controversial and each has fallen in the face of public resistance," they continue. In 2014, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that accessing subscriber information without a warrant constitutes an illegal search.

"Like looking up an address in a phone book or checking out a license-plate number, access to basic subscriber information is one way for law enforcement and national security investigators to identify an individual," the government's green paper states. "But Canadian court rulings have reinforced the need for appropriate safeguards around basic subscriber information, some of which could, when linked to other information, reveal intimate details of a person's activities. "

Subscriber information includes IP addresses, name, home address, phone number, email address, and mobile devices' IMSI number—much more information than is contained in your average phone book. Court rulings that set limits on access to subscriber information "have made it difficult for law enforcement to obtain it in a timely and effective manner," the report states.

"While both basic subscriber information (BSI) and a phone book can both be used to identify someone, BSI requires safeguards because some of it can reveal intimate details of a person's activities when linked to other information," a spokesperson for Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale wrote me in an email. "That principle has been affirmed by the courts. The government is committed to protecting both Canadians' safety and their rights, including their privacy rights."

The green paper is meant to "provoke discussion," the spokesperson wrote.

The idea of giving Canada's police and spying agencies access to subscriber information without a warrant was first raised in a consultation document in 2002, and was defeated in 2012 after being included in the failed Bill C-30, also known as the "Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act."

Most recently, in 2015, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police passed a resolution at their annual conference to lobby for warrantless, "real time" access to subscriber information.

Now, it seems, the federal government has moved from paedophiles to terrorists in its bid to convince the public that warrantless access to subscriber information is a good idea.

UPDATE 10/05: This article has been updated to include comment from the office of Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale.

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