Suppose you read an online article – not this one, hopefully – that makes you so angry you post a comment under your online pseudonym, "Irate Canuck," saying that someone ought to shoot the author. The police notice.
Under legislation that the Conservatives will soon be introducing, the police could order your Internet service provider to hand over your personal information so that they could have a talk with you.
If they are sufficiently concerned, they could get a warrant and begin tracking your every move. You really should have turned off the GPS on your smart phone.
All of this has Ontario's Privacy Commissioner, Ann Cavoukian, alarmed. She describes some of the bill's provisions as "reprehensible."
"You will have no idea who has access to where you've been and what you've been doing," she said in an interview. "And that should give everyone pause."
Similar legislation was introduced as three separate bills in the last parliament, but died on the order paper. This time it will be bundled into a single bill and introduced either in December or after the House returns Jan. 31.
The Conservatives insist that the only digital information that police could require Internet service providers to obtain without a warrant is the sort any good investigator (or reporter) can find through online trolling.
But Jennifer Stoddart, the federal Privacy Commissioner, reads the legislation very differently. Based on the previous versions of the bills, she wrote to Public Safety Minister Vic Toews recently, "there is not even a requirement for the commission of a crime to justify access to personal information – real names, home address, unlisted numbers, e-mail addresses, IP addresses and much more – without a warrant."
The legislation, she warns, would add "significant new capabilities for investigators to track and search and seize digital information about individuals."
"Canadians have not been given sufficient justification for the new powers," she concluded.
The privacy commissioners want the warrantless search powers stripped from the bill and an oversight body established to ensure that any new police surveillance powers aren't abused.
But Mr. Toews has made it clear he plans no major changes.
"As technology evolves, many criminal activities – such as the distribution of child pornography – become much easier," he wrote in response. "We are proposing measures to bring our laws into the 21st century and provide police with the tools they need to do their job."
So who is acting on behalf of the greater good – the Public Safety Minister or the privacy commissioners? Does the need to deter pedophiles, terrorists and other bad people from exploiting the Web to commit crimes and evade detection outweigh our right to surf and post without fear of being watched?
We all need to know exactly what this bill contains and how it could affect each of us. The legislation will warrant the closest possible scrutiny. No time allocation; no ramming through. There should be extensive public hearings and robust committee oversight in both the House and Senate.
Before we award the federal government such sweeping new powers to snoop, the Conservatives need to make their case. They haven't made it yet.