Harper’s Orwellian Anti-Terror Bill C-51 Troubles Privacy Czar

by: Obert Madondo |  | Published February 1, 2015, by The Canadian Progressive

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's new anti-terror Bill C-51 "will impose a broad chill on legitimate political speech." Photo: Stephen Harper/FLICKR (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s new anti-terror Bill C-51 “will impose a broad chill on legitimate political speech.” Photo: Stephen Harper/FLICKR (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The Privacy Commissioner of Canada is among the many sober-minded individuals already deeply troubled by Bill C-51, Canada’s proposed anti-terrorism legislation.

Daniel Therrien responded to the 1984-style omnibus legislation moments after it was introduced by Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Friday last week.

Bill C-51, or Security of Canada Information Sharing Act, is the culmination of Harper’s unrelenting effort to portray Canada as being at war with “Islamists” and the Islamic State terrorist group. Apparently, to win that war, Canada’s law enforcement and national security agencies need more powers to spy on Canadians. Most notably, Bill C-51 will enhance the cyber-surveillance powers of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).

Harper also cited the recent attacks in Ottawa, Australia and France as justification for this move towards a surveillance state

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“At this early stage, I can say that I am concerned with the breadth of the new authorities to be conferred by the proposed new Security of Canada Information Sharing Act,” said Therrien in a statement.

Here’s part of Therrien initial response:

Protecting public safety is an essential duty of the state, but national security responses to acts of terror such as the horrific attacks recently experienced here and elsewhere must be proportionate and designed in a way that protects democratic values that are pillars of Canadian society. This was the central message of a joint statement on national security and law enforcement measures endorsed by all Privacy and Information Commissioners of Canada last October.

Canadians want to be safe but they also care profoundly about their privacy rights. They also want government to be more transparent on the activities they undertake in the name of national security and they want to know why these are necessary.

It is with these principles and expectations in mind that my Office will examine very carefully the proposals in Bill C-51. I will share more detailed comments with MPs and Senators in due course, as they study this proposed legislation.

My comments today, without the benefit of having had the opportunity to fully analyze the Bill, focus on issues surrounding information sharing and oversight, although later comments may include other relevant aspects of the Bill.

At this early stage, I can say that I am concerned with the breadth of the new authorities to be conferred by the proposed new Security of Canada Information Sharing Act. This Act would seemingly allow departments and agencies to share the personal information of all individuals, including ordinary Canadians who may not be suspected of terrorist activities, for the purpose of detecting and identifying new security threats. It is not clear that this would be a proportional measure that respects the privacy rights of Canadians. In the public discussion on Bill C-51, it will be important to be clear about whose information would be shared with national security agencies, for which specific purpose and under what conditions, including any applicable safeguards.

I am also concerned that the proposed changes to information sharing authorities are not accompanied by measures to fill gaps in the national security oversight regime. Three national security agencies in Canada are subject to dedicated independent oversight of all of their activities. However, most of the organizations that would receive and use more personal information under the legislation introduced today are not. Gaps in the oversight regime were identified long ago, notably by Justice O’Connor in the report he made at the conclusion of the Arar Inquiry. Extending the jurisdiction of oversight bodies would be an important step towards the greater transparency that Canadians expect.

Ironically, Bill C-51 was introduced two days after Canadians responding to a recent survey commissioned by the privacy commissioner said they were concerned about privacy and related issues. According to the survey, nine out of 10 Canadians have “some level of concern” about the protection of their privacy, and one-third (34%) are “extremely concerned.”

“Canadians deeply value privacy, but fear they are losing the control they have over their personal information. It’s imperative we find ways to enhance that sense of control so that people feel their privacy rights are being respected,” said the privacy commissioner in a statement.

The survey also found that “while they expressed concerns about many issues, roughly half of Canadians said they don’t have a good understanding of what businesses and government will do with their personal information.”

Canada already has a dictatorship-style online surveillance law – Bill C-13, the deceptively named “Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act.” Last June, over 30 privacy experts wrote to Harper and declared that Bill C-13 revealed “Canada’s growing privacy deficit.”

With Bill C-51 set to be approved by the Conservatives majorities in both the House of Commons and Senate, the deficit is only going to increase.

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Obert Madondo is an Ottawa-based progressive blogger, and the founder and editor of The Canadian Progressive. Follow me on Twitter: @Obiemad