Police in Canada have been making their case in the media for greater powers to crack encryption and other digital privacy measures, which they say are increasingly stymying investigations into criminal activities online.
To demonstrate the need for expanded powers, federal police recently gave “unprecedented access” to two of the country’s biggest media outlets. The RCMP allowed journalists from the Toronto Star and the CBC to access 10 “top secret” case files, which were essentially vetted summaries prepared by police, intended to illustrate the roadblocks that investigators say they are coming up against.
The CBC/Star five-part investigative series, which was published in November, sparked widespread debate about police powers and privacy online. In Motherboard, critics accused the police of using the media to spark “moral panic” about encryption. Talk from RCMP officials about criminals “going dark” mirrors language used by the FBI in the US, which has had its own debate about these issues going back for years.
Canada is in the midst of a public consultation on a green paper on national security that highlights four proposals, including one that would give police “warrantless access” to Canadians’ basic internet subscriber information. Police argue that they need expanded digital powers to keep us all safe from crime. Privacy advocates, on the other hand, say that the police already have wide-ranging capabilities to surveil Canadians, maybe more now than than ever. And encryption, of course, isn’t just used by criminals.
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The CBC/Star investigation comes at a charged time, amid revelations that spies here had been illegally storing Canadians’ metadata for a decade; that police in Quebec had been surveilling journalists in the province; and amid public consultations on Canada’s controversial Bill C-51, which has been sold as an anti-terrorism measure.
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