Long before email, metadata and GPS tracking, King Louis XIII’s hatchetman Cardinal Richelieu said: “If one would give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, I would find something in them to have him hanged.”
Nothing’s changed. The RCMP is back at the back door, lobbying the government for greater powers to access digital evidence — and now they’re using the media to make their case.
Recently, the RCMP self-selected 10 investigation files and fed summaries to the CBC and Toronto Star. Details that could compromise ongoing investigations (or be used by journalists to fact-check) were redacted. Both media outlets dutifully gave the Mounties the headline they wanted — one about how child predators, drug gangs and terrorists are escaping justice.
The RCMP’s proposed solution is, of course, more police power. It’s always more police power.
The RCMP wants laws that would compel suspects to hand over passwords, grant warrantless access to subscriber information and require telecommunication providers to build back-door intercept capabilities into their networks.
The RCMP’s sophisticated media campaign leverages the same fear that former Conservative public safety minister Vic Toews sought to exploit in the Bill C-30 debacle — the one that saw Toews demand that opposition MPs “stand with us or with the child pornographers.” In fact, some of the added powers the RCMP is now lobbying for were at the heart of Toews’ bill.
Public backlash undermined C-30 to such a degree that then-Justice Minister Rob Nicholson had to declare the government would “not be proceeding with Bill C-30 and any attempts [to] modernize the Criminal Code will not contain the measures in C-30 — including the warrantless mandatory disclosure of basic subscriber information, or the requirement for telecommunications service providers to build intercept capabilities within their systems.”
If the RCMP has its way, all of that will be back on the table.
Can we trust that the RCMP was honest when it was spilling its guts to the Star and the CBC? Probably not. After all, the Mounties didn’t disclose that they had been collecting data on aboriginal activists involved in the Idle No More protests. The RCMP labeled those people a threat to national security — the same, convenient, all-purpose justification the RCMP fed to the media this past week.
And CSIS? We already know it’s been lying about its use of metadata. Just weeks ago the Federal Court blasted CSIS for illegally and secretly retaining 10 years worth of metadata obtained from individuals who where not alleged to have committed any crime. Through what the court described as a “powerful program which processes metadata”, the spy agency was able to gather intelligence which revealed “specific, intimate details on the life and environment” of the target and could draw “links between various sources and enormous amounts of data that no human being would be capable.”
How many people were targeted? How much data was collected? Why was it collected? It’s all still a secret. This is how privacy and freedom are lost to the creeping security state.
At its most basic level, the RCMP’s argument is one of paranoid expedience. There is no doubt that digital backdoors and compelled passwords would help them solve more crimes. So would a master key to every house and a camera on every street corner.
In 2014, the Supreme Court found that the warrantless seizure of subscriber information was unconstitutional. In the year before the court’s ruling, Canadian police forces made an astonishing 1.2 million warrantless data requests to telecommunication companies without any oversight or rules about storage, use, or dissemination of that information.
This is the kind of power the RCMP wants to get back. And recent revelations about police surveillance operations targeting journalists ought to prove that police simply cannot be trusted with that type of power.
It’s easy to give up the rights of others. It’s easy to slip into the mindset that believes only those who are doing something wrong have something to hide. As privacy advocate Glenn Greenwald puts it, anyone who subscribes to that mindset is basically saying: “I have agreed to make myself such a harmless and unthreatening and uninteresting person that I actually don’t fear having the government know what it is that I’m doing.”
There’s a reason why even the homes of law-abiding citizens have blinds.
Electronic data — especially when collected en masse, retained and data-mined — will reveal intimate and personal details that are deserving of enhanced protection.
That is what the police want. That is what we would be all giving up. And that’s what Cardinal Richelieu understood about the surveillance state: It can always find a hook on which to hang even the most honest citizen.