On January 20, 2014 the Citizen Lab along with leading Canadian academics and civil liberties groups sent letters to Canada’s most prominent Internet service providers. We asked the companies to reveal the extent to which they voluntarily, and under compulsion, disclose information about their subscribers to state agencies, as well as for information about business practices and data retention periods. The requested information would let researchers, policy analysts, and civil liberties groups better understand the current telecommunications landscape and engage in evidence-based policy analysis of current and proposed government surveillance activities. The companies were asked to provide responses by March 3, 2014.
A considerable amount of attention has been given to state access to telecommunications data since January 20. Organizations such as the Globe and Mail wrote that Canadians deserve to know who is listening to their communications, and reporting by The Wire Report found that while telecommunications companies believed they might not be able to respond to all the questions in the letters, at least some responses might be provided without running afoul of government gag laws. However, The Wire Report also found that some sources believed they were forbidden from disclosing any information about the assistance they provide to government agencies, with one stating they were “completely resigned.”
At the same time as the letters were being examined by the companies, a series of high-profile telecommunications-related stories broke in the media. In the United States, leading telecommunications carriers released ‘transparency reports’ that put some information in the public arena concerning how often the companies disclose information to American state agencies. In Canada, there were revelations that the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) had surreptitiously monitored the movements of Canadians vis-a-vis mobile devices that connected to wireless routers. These revelations sparked renewed interest in the origins of CSEC’s data, whether Canadian telecommunications companies either voluntarily or under compulsion provide data to CSEC, the nature of CSEC’s ‘metadata’ collection process, and the rationales driving data exchanges between telecommunications companies and state agencies more generally. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada also tabled a report that outlined a series of ways to improve accountability and transparency surrounding state access to telecommunications data. Finally, MP Charmaine Borg, the New Democratic Party Member of Parliament for the riding of Terrebonne—Blainville in Quebec, issued a series of questions to the federal government that are meant to render transparent how federal agencies request information from telecommunications companies.