Why Canada Lacks the Debate on Encryption and Privacy, Unlike the U.S.

While Apple and the FBI are firing on all (PR) guns in the US, and the debate is being closely watched by Canadians, policy discussions involving encryption and the power of law enforcement agencies have been “functionally non-existent”, according to Citizen Lab researcher Christopher Parsons in an interview with the Globe and Mail.


The reason: There is a smaller policy community in the country focusing on these issues and a smaller amount of case law, plus previous governments have shown interest in expanding police powers rather than imposing limits.

Also, it is worth considering what Tamir Israel, a staff lawyer with the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, says: The government can easily benefit from the US debate without engaging in it.

“They can dodge the debate and benefit from it without having to engage in it,” said Tamir Israel, a staff lawyer with the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic. “And then the other side to that is they often will find quieter ways to get comparable results where they can’t directly piggyback.”

As an example, Israel points to the Solicitor General’s Enforcement Standards (SGES), which describes 23 technical surveillance standards that must be followed in order to obtain a wireless spectrum licence in Canada. Such legislation was introduced quietly after the US passed surveillance legislation called the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act in the 1990s.

Israel also underscored the lack of transparency surrounding the government’s position and policies. The RCMP states that it “encourages public discourse with Canadians as public policy continues to take shape on the issue of encryption”, as cited by the Globe.

“International police agencies are all in agreement that some ability to access evidence when judicial authorization is granted is required, recognizing that secure data and communications enables commerce and social interactions in today’s reality. These are complex challenges which the RCMP continues to study,” the RCMP statement reads as cited by the Globe and Mail.

Liberal MP Robert Oliphant, chairman of the standing committee on public safety and national security, wrote in an email that “while encryption and backdoors are of great concern to a number of people, they have not yet surfaced as issues for our committee in its early days” and added that the committee would set up a work plan shortly.

“With respect to the case involving Apple, although raised in the U.S., this is an issue of universal importance. One principle to keep in mind is that companies need to be governed by the rule of law,” said Tobi Cohen, a spokesperson from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada to Global News.

“That being said, the issue of whether it is possible for tech companies to comply with warrants without affecting the safeguards that protect all of us is something that must also be taken into account.”