The Montreal Gazette
Tuesday, July 28, 1998

Privacy in a computer age

Most of the world may applaud technological advances such as cell phones, E-mail and now, software programs that can turn computer messages into unbreakable code. But for law-enforcement agencies, those technologies can also be frustrating impediments to police work.

Their latest object of concern, encryption, is powerful software capable of producing virtually uncrackable codes. Drug dealers, the police warn ominously, will be able to communicate in codes that investigators cannot break.

In response to this threat, police have proposed that the sale of encryption be contingent on giving them an electronic master key to the code.

It is an idea, as Privacy Commissioner Bruce Phillips said last week, that is "somewhat akin to requiring everyone to give local police the keys to our homes in case we might commit a crime in the future and they need to enter".

At a time when electronic advances mean it has become easier for other people to intercept private communications, the vast majority of Canadians who are law-abiding will appreciate having access to a product that protects their privacy.

It's offensive for the police to suggest that the product be restricted and that they be given carte blanche to wade into anyone's private life. Privacy is a fundamental right in our society. It is also, the Supreme Court of Canada has stated, a basic element in establishing individual freedom.

The federal government should give short shrift to arguments that Canadians' right to private communication be suspended for the convenience of the police. To allow police to gain access in such a generalized, unaccountable way pushes Canada a few unwelcome steps toward becoming a police state.

Under current legislation, police have to apply to a judge for a search warrant. If they cannot convince the judge that the invasion of privacy they are proposing is likely to produce evidence of serious crimes, no search warrant will be issued.

Ottawa has been studying issues of privacy, prodded by the growing popularity of the Internet, since 1996 when then-justice minister Allan Rock committed himself to bring in effective and enforceable privacy laws by 2000.

For the federal government, more is at stake than police frustration with unbreakable codes. It is in the interest of the government to reassure Canadians that privacy is compatible with the new world of computerized communications. There are substantial cost savings to be had if more Canadians were willing, for instance, to file their taxes online. Health researchers hold out the promise of greater progress in preventive medicine if Canadians would allow details of their health care to be computerized and then accessed by researchers and health professionals.

But to get anywhere near something as potentially intrusive as a medical Internet, the government must make sure that such sensitive information will always remain confidential.

As a first step toward providing all Canadians with that guarantee, Ottawa could do no better than to deny police forces their request.

Copyright © 1998 by The Montreal Gazette. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.