The Canadian House of Commons is currently considering Bill C-26, which would make sweeping amendments to the country’s Telecommunications Act that would expand its Minister of Industry’s power over telecommunication service providers. It’s designed to accomplish a laudable and challenging goal: ensure that government and industry partners efficiently and effectively work together to strengthen Canada’s network security in the face of repeated hacking attacks.

C-26 is not identical to US national security laws. But without adequate safeguards, it could open the door to similar practices and orders.

As researchers and civil society organizations have noted, however, the legislation contains vague and overbroad language that may invite abuse and pressure on ISPs to do the government’s bidding at the expense of Canadian privacy rights. It would vest substantial authority in Canadian executive branch officials to (in the words of C-26’s summary) “direct telecommunications service providers to do anything, or refrain from doing anything, that is necessary to secure the Canadian telecommunications system.” That could include ordering telecommunications companies to install backdoors inside encrypted elements in Canada’s networksSafeguards to protect privacy and civil rights are few; C-26’s only express limit is that Canadian officials cannot order service providers to intercept private or radio-based telephone communications.

Unfortunately, we in the United States know all too well what can happen when government officials assert broad discretionary power over telecommunications networks. For over 20 years, the U.S. government has deputized internet service providers and systems to surveil Americans and their correspondents, without meaningful judicial oversight. These legal authorities and details of the surveillance have varied, but, in essence, national security law has allowed the U.S. government to vacuum up digital communications so long as the surveillance is directed at foreigners currently located outside the United States and doesn’t intentionally target Americans. Once collected, the FBI can search through this massive database of information by “querying” the communications of specific individuals. In 2021 alone, the FBI conducted up to 3.4 million warrantless searches to find Americans’ communications.

Congress has attempted to add in additional safeguards over the years, to little avail. In 2023, for example, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) released internal documents used to guide agency personnel on how to search the massive databases of information they collect. Despite reassurances from the intelligence community about its “culture of compliance,” these documents reflect little interest in protecting privacy or civil liberties. At the same time, the NSA and domestic law enforcement authorities have been seeking to undermine the encryption tools and processes on which we all rely to protect our privacy and security.

C-26 is not identical to U.S. national security laws. But without adequate safeguards, it could open the door to similar practices and orders. What is worse, some of those orders could be secret, at the government’s discretion. In the U.S., that kind of secrecy has made it impossible for Americans to challenge mass surveillance in court. We’ve also seen companies presented with gag orders in connection with “national security letters” compelling them to hand over information. C-26 does allow for judicial review of non-secret orders, e.g. an order requiring an ISP to cut off an account-holder or website, if the subject of those orders believes they are unreasonable or ungrounded. But that review may include secret evidence that is kept from applicants and their counsel.

Canadian courts will decide whether a law authorizing secret orders and evidence is consistent with Canada’s legal tradition. But either way, the U.S. experience offers a cautionary tale of what can happen when a government grants itself broad powers to monitor and direct telecommunications networks, absent corresponding protections for human rights. In effect, the U.S. government has created, in the name of national security, a broad exception to the Constitution that allows the government to spy on all Americans and denies them any viable means of challenging that spying. We hope Canadians will refuse to allow their government to do the same in the name of “cybersecurity.”

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