by Jeff Sallot
Commissioner Phillips warns that Ottawa would be helping to create a police state if right to use technology is curbed
OTTAWA -- Privacy Commissioner Bruce Phillips warns that Canada could be moving toward a police state if the federal government restricts people's right to use powerful encryption software for electronic commerce and communications on the Internet.
Law-enforcement agencies in Canada and the United States are trying to halt the sale of encryption software unless they are supplied with electronic master keys that would allow them to decipher coded messages sent via the Internet.
This idea 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", Mr. Phillips says in a report to Parliament released Wednesday.
"The scope of this proposed access is unparalleled and moves us a step toward a police state", he says in the report.
The federal government is reviewing Internet privacy issues in anticipation of a boom in electronic commerce and communications. Ottawa hopes to announce a policy later this year.
Canada has a number of encryption-software manufacturers ready to sell programs that they say can turn plain text messages into virtually unbreakable code and back again. Some powerful encryption software has been available from suppliers on the Internet for several years.
Law-enforcement agencies in Canada and the U.S. are lobbying for restrictions on this software, arguing that it allows drug dealers and other criminals to communicate secretly on the Internet.
The agencies hope governments will require software companies to supply electronic master keys to decode messages.
But law-enforcement interests "run directly counter to the individual's privacy and to business interests", Mr. Phillips says.
He and other privacy advocates say police should have to get judicial warrants to intercept and decode electronic messages in the same way that they must obtain search and wiretap warrants.
Judges typically require police to make a case that these invasions of privacy are likely to produce evidence of serious crimes before issuing warrants.
What law-enforcement agencies are proposing is far more sweeping, intrusive, and "it is quite astonishing", Sally Jackson, a spokeswoman for the Privacy Commissioner, said.
Mr. Phillips says in his report that "the onus is on government to demonstrate an overwhelming public interest before overriding our right to have private communications".
He recommends that all Canadians should have access to any kind of cryptography software they want be able to decide freely how to handle their keys.
Moreover, "all electronic-commerce activities should allow cryptography".
Mr. Phillips notes parallel developments in the field of electronic communication running counter to each other when it comes to privacy. The proliferation of devices such as computers, wireless phones, and the development of the Internet makes it easier for others to intercept private data and communications. On the other hand, encryption technology has advanced to the point where it could take high-powered computers millions of years to break some codes.
His report says that unless encryption is used, E-mail sent on the Internet is no more private than a post card. Thus people should avoid sending sensitive information such as health data, credit-card numbers, and the dates when they will be away from home on vacation by E-mail unless the message is encrypted.