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How Canada’s Anti-Cyberbullying Law Is Being Used to Spy on Journalists

Journalist Patrick Lagacé became a “tool” for police.

Patrick Lagacé, a columnist for Montreal's La Presse newspaper, says that police told him he was a "tool" in an internal investigation when they tapped his iPhone's GPS to track his whereabouts and obtained the identities of everyone who communicated with him on that phone.

Lagacé alleges that this surveillance was designed to intimidate and discourage potential sources within the Montreal police department from approaching him with information for his story.

Police obtained a warrant for this under the hugely controversial Bill C-13, which gave investigators new powers, privacy lawyer David Fraser noted in an interview. The bill was initially sold as combatting cyberbullying and the unwanted publication of intimate images online, also known as "revenge porn."

"These laws are presented with certain scenarios in mind, but these are laws of general application that can be used for any offence," Fraser said. "We need to be very careful in parsing, and frankly, not believing, the objectives that politicians use [when selling the public on the need for these laws]. We need to cut through that and look at the substance of the law to see how they can be used, and more importantly, abused."

Read More: Canada's Expanding Revenge Porn Laws Could Threaten Journalistic Freedom

According to Citizen Lab researcher Christopher Parsons, these same powers that target journalists can be used against non-journalists under C-13. And the only reason we know about the aforementioned cases is that the press has a platform to speak out.

"This is an area where transparency and accountability are essential," Parsons said in an interview. "We've given piles and piles of new powers to law enforcement and security agencies alike. What's happened to this journalist shows we desperately need to know how the government uses its powers to ensure they're not abused in any way."

This isn't the first time in 2016 that Canadian police have attempted to turn journalists into informants, a practice that critics say jeopardizes reporters' ability to publish important information from sources who may not want their identities to be known by the police.

In September, Quebec police seized the computer of Journal de Montréal reporter Michael Nguyen. The courts insist that police are investigating whether Nguyen illegally hacked into court computers in order to obtain information that led to a story about a judge who acted abusively during a Christmas party. The paper has maintained that Nguyen broke no laws, and that the real reason the police seized his computer is to determine the source of the information.

"I expect that the use of these particular powers will become more common as the police get more used to using it and more savvy in using them," Parsons said.

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