Privacy advocates are clashing with police on the front lines of cyberspace.
And both sides say the digital dispute's outcome will affect millions of Canadians.
They're fighting over cryptography -- the ability to encode computer messages such as e-mail so they remain confidential, even it they fall into the wrong hands.
The issue pits the right of Canadians to privately exchange information against the entitlement of police to monitor the communications of suspected criminals.
Cryptography, long used to protect military and diplomatic secrets, will be crucial to the growth of electronic commerce, allowing people to send sensitive information such as credit card numbers over the Internet. It can also help ensure the confidentiality of everything from business contracts to medical records in the digital world. Only a user's secret electronic key will unlock the data.
But law-enforcement agencies argue the increasing availability of cryptography software will allow drug dealers, child pornographers, and hate-mongers to shield their unseemly activities from scrutiny.
RCMP commissioner Phil Murray argues the police must be given a means to unlock the encrypted messages and files they gather. He notes electronic surveillance has long been fundamental to the investigation of serious crime.
Murray adds that privacy is adequately protected by the legal obligation of police to satisfy a judge there are grounds for listening in. The Metropolitan Toronto Police say cryptography service providers should be required to keep backup copies of clients' keys and turn them over to police when presented with a warrant.
The group, dedicated to protecting privacy and freedom of expression, maintains there should be no regulation of data encryption in Canada.
"Electronic Frontier Canada believes that the privacy rights of 30 million Canadians and the legitimate business interests Canadian companies have in conducting secure electronic commerce should not be set aside because law-enforcement officials can imagine an unlikely scenario in which their investigation would be made more difficult."
Privacy Commissioner Bruce Phillips argues the powers sought by police "may not be the most appropriate solution" to the problem of crime, and could violate the Charter of Rights. "Indeed, law-enforcement agencies have not proven that the interception and decryption capabilities they are seeking will lead to a decrease in criminal activities."
Besides, he argues, computer-savvy criminals can already communicate over computer networks in a way that confounds investigators.
The federal review is also looking at whether controls should be placed on phone companies and Internet servers that provide encryption of messages.