The Harper government, which took heavy criticism this past week over a bill to give police new Web snooping powers, is fighting back – accusing chief rivals, the NDP, of using underhanded tactics to oppose the legislation.
The Conservatives charged Friday that the New Democrats were behind a nasty and anonymous personal attack on Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, the sponsor of a bill criticized as a major invasion of privacy.
Starting on Feb. 14, an unidentified user employed Twitter to broadcast deeply personal and private details of Mr. Toews's marital breakdown – information obtained from affidavits that are nevertheless publicly available from a Winnipeg court.
Late Friday, the Twitter page was shut down after this final post: "I set up this project to make a point, not ensnare innocent people in a government witch hunt," the last post to @vikileaks30 said, before the page disappeared.
It's far from clear yet who was behind the account, but the Conservative counterattack Friday succeeded in shifting Parliamentary debate away from the contents of Mr. Toews's cybercrime bill.
The Ottawa Citizen has reported it traced the anonymous Twitter account back to a Parliament Internet protocol (IP) address – the numeric label assigned to devices on a computer network.
It can be very hard, however, to link a particular individual to an IP address. In some cases IP addresses are shared among many computer users and the one assigned to a particular user can change regularly.
The House of Commons says its more than 4,000 users, for instance, show up on the Internet as having one of a handful of public IP addresses. Commons network administrators relying on computer logs could identify who was using a particular computer at a particular time but not if the user covered their tracks.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird charged the NDP has been engaged in a "dirty, sleazy Internet game" and demanded the party identify the culprit. He levelled the accusations inside the Commons where MPs are immune from prosecution.
"Not only has it stooped to the lowest of the lows, but it has been running this nasty Internet dirty trick campaign with taxpayers' money," Mr. Baird said.
The NDP said it had no reason to believe someone from their party was responsible.
The Conservatives cited news reports as the basis for their accusation, but the Ottawa Citizen merely noted the IP address had been recorded by Wikipedia in connection with updates to encyclopedia articles that gave them "what appears to be a pro-NDP bias."
The NDP said that proved little, pointing out the same IP address was also logged on Wikipedia when people updated pages for a Conservative MP, a Conservative Senator and a Liberal Senator.
Mr. Toews said the @vikileaks30 attack is underhanded and unethical.
"It is one thing for a Member of Parliament to stand in the House and engage in an attack. We are all held accountable for what we say publicly in the House of Commons," the minister said in a statement supplied by his office.
"Anonymous activity like this is the act of someone who wants to hide from debate on the real issue. Using the taxpayer-funded resources of the House of Commons to avoid accountability for actions and statements is completely unacceptable."
Mr. Toews has asked Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer to probe the matter.
Late Friday night, someone deleted the @vikileaks30 Twitter account.
Former Commons speaker Peter Milliken said in an interview he can't see what Parliamentary rules might have been broken if an anonymous Twitter user were using Parliamentary resources to send their @vikileaks30 messages.
The New Democrats said they would cooperate with an investigation and challenged the Conservatives to produce any proof a New Democrat was behind the attack. The Liberals said they'd seen no evidence a staffer from their party was involved.
The Canadian media and opposition parties have been largely hesitant to delve deeply into Mr. Toews's divorce from his spouse, Lorraine Kathleen Fehr.
But Internet advocacy campaigns have not always played by the same rules when it comes to politicians or other public figures.
Bill C-30, which the Conservatives have named the Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act, would require telecommunications service providers to give police a person's name, address, phone numbers, e-mail address and Internet Protocol address – which identifies a person on a computer – upon request and without a warrant.
In an about-face Wednesday, the Harper government blinked in the face of a backlash over the legislation and said it's now prepared to accept a broad range of changes to a bill criticized as a major intrusion into Canadians' privacy.
Under the bill as written, companies would also be forced to adapt their equipment so that authorities could monitor the actions of subscribers. Those authorities would have to obtain a judicial warrant, however, before they could track the mobile-phone movements and online activities of people suspected of committing a crime.
Tabled Tuesday, the bill is supported by police forces and by provincial and territorial attorneys general. Government officials said similar or more intrusive measures have already been adopted by the United States, Britain, Australia and numerous European countries.