Fears as Canadian ISP spies on its customers

Privacy issues raised

A statement by a major Canadian internet service provider that it will be monitoring customers’ cyber activities for possible reporting to government agencies has sparked concern among privacy advocates.

In its new service agreement, which took effect on June 15, Bell Sympatico told customers it “reserves the right from time to time to monitor the service electronically, monitor or investigate content or the use of the service provider’s networks”.

Bell Sympatico, the statement went on to say, would “disclose any information necessary to satisfy any laws, regulations or other government request”.

This announcement is a likely precursor to similar controversial initiatives by other service providers, according to one Canadian academic.

“We will be seeing more and more of this,” says Bryan Karney, a University of Toronto professor who investigates the social impact of technology. “If you sign up, it forces you to wave aside any ethical [concerns].”

But, in a press statement, Bell Sympatico said it “collaborates with law enforcement agencies only when presented with legitimate court-ordered warrants”.

“To suggest that we are illegally or routinely monitoring our customers is inaccurate and false.”

Karney says the development presents ethical issues that need to be debated, and also raises technical questions about how such a surveillance operation is to be carried out.

“I don’t know how they are going to do this. With the enormous amount of daily [internet] traffic, it strikes me as a very daunting task, to say the least.”

These sentiments are shared by other observers as well.

“Lawful access is in the books,” says Philippa Lawson, executive director of the Ottawa-based Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPI), referring to a controversial bill covering access to information by enforcement agencies.

The Modernisation of Investigative Techniques Bill was originally introduced in the House of Commons by the Liberals in November. It died when the minority Liberal Government fell.

However, the bill is widely expected to be revived by the Conservative Government later this year or in early 2007.

It is this expectation that is prompting “monitoring” programmes such as the one announced by Bell Sympatico, privacy activists believe.

Bell Sympatico said in a statement that it “does not proactively monitor customers’ use of the service or the content of emails”.

However, in the normal course of business, Bell Sympatico said, it “may be required to monitor certain aspects” of internet use as it may apply to things such as bandwidth consumption and spam filtering.

Customers are not able to “opt-out” of this reservation, Bell Sympatico says.

Karney says there may be “valid inducements” for government agencies to seek unfettered access to information, such as in the case of child abuse and pornography or terrorism.

“But there has to be a public debate and scrutiny before anything like this is implemented.”

He says there has to be a balance between individual rights and protection of the general public.

Current lawful access provisions, embodied in the Criminal Code, already allow law enforcement agencies to conduct searches and seizure of information through a court order. The proposed update seeks to allow authorities to obtain specific subscriber data from telecom service providers, even without a warrant or court order.

“Every little incremental additional power that they give to law enforcement is building up a structure in which citizens have a real difficulty leading lives that are not potentially subject to state surveillance,” said Lawson in an earlier interview.

Lawson believes the need for the internet surveillance bill was not adequately shown and that its provisions open it up to possible abuse.

“Preserving our fundamental rights is more important than allowing police unhampered access to people’s personal data,” says Lawson.

But she says the government “is definitely stopping short” of moving towards an Orwellian society where law enforcement agencies are empowered to conduct unfettered surveillance activities.

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