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Telecoms refuse to release information on private data given to feds

Canada's privacy commissioner says telecom companies are refusing to tell her office how many times they have handed over personal customer information to the federal government without a warrant.

Chantal Bernier, the interim privacy commissioner, said her office has repeatedly asked telecom companies to disclose statistics and the scope of warrantless disclosure of data, to no avail.

"I'm not disputing that there are times when there is no time to get a warrant — life is in danger," Bernier said Tuesday.

"What we would like is for those warrantless disclosures to simply be represented in statistics so that Canadians have an idea of the scope of the phenomenon."

Bernier said the companies have only provided her office with aggregate data, which shows how many times the telecom industry as a whole gives the government customer information without a warrant.

That data was provided a few years ago, she added.

"We have tried many times. We have sought out information from the telecoms to find out," she said. "They've given us very general comments."

Empowering citizens
Bernier said she would like to see statistics published so Canadians know how many times their personal information is given to the government without a warrant.

"It would give a form of oversight by empowering citizens to see what the scope of the phenomenon is."

Last month, the Chronicle Herald newspaper in Halifax reported the Canada Border Services Agency alone accessed telecom customer data almost 19,000 times over one year -- and no warrant was used more than 99 per cent of the time.

The law allows Canadian telecom companies and Internet providers to hand over customer information without a court order to help law-enforcement investigations.

In January, Bernier's office released a report calling on Communications Security Establishment Canada — the federal government's electronic eavesdropping agency — to tell Canadians more about what it's doing.

One of the recommendations, intended to bolster protection of privacy rights in national security efforts, called on CSEC to disclose annual statistics on cases in which it assists other federal agencies with requests for interception, which can include monitoring of Canadians.

Privacy commissioner investigating Bell
The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, which represents the industry, said several of its members provided the privacy commissioner's office with "an aggregate number of lawful access requests" a few years ago.

"It was a one-time exercise and hasn't been repeated since," spokesman Marc Choma said in an email.

Bernier spoke to reporters after her appearance at a Senate committee looking into changes to Bell Canada's privacy policy.

The privacy commissioner's office has received 170 complaints about the way Bell collects and uses its customers' personal information to target online advertisements, she said.

Her office is investigating Bell's privacy policy and Bernier says a finding is expected by the end of the year.

Representatives from Bell are scheduled to appear before the same Senate committee on Wednesday.

Telecoms refuse to release information on private data given to feds