Telecom firms face silence over government access to data

by Andrew Roach on June 14, 2013

In the wake of the PRISM privacy scandal, telecom companies in the US were revealed to be some of the sources from which the NSA obtained information about users and customers.

It has drawn a strong response from Canadian telecom firms who have vowed that they would do everything in their power to stop governments or other parties from accessing their information.

But while the public show of bravado may re-assure customers, it could all be irrelevant if the government were able to stop firms talking about the matter privately.

At the moment, it is illegal for the government to store and access detailed information on Canadian citizens although they are able to get access to basic indicators such as time and place of a conversation.

As telecom firms have buffed up their defences in the last few days over the security of their information, any potential government access could go unreported with companies helpless to report what is going on.

Thanks to the current surveillance laws, the government would be able to issue non-disclosure conditions on any need to gain data from firms meaning that they would be legally consigned to not speak about the move.

This means that programs such as the recently authorised initiative to access data on foreign security targets from telecom firms can get whatever they need without having to worry about public outcry.

Most of the access would be primarily based around metadata which reveals generic information on what a user is doing on the web such as the time and place of their conversation.

With rumours circulating viciously about whether they keep silent on a regular basis, the major telecom firms have shrugged off suggestions about constant government access. In a statement, Rogers spokesperson Jennifer Kett stated that “we require a properly executed warrant to disclose customer information to law enforcement We have not had a request to share metadata with the government.”

These views were echoed by BCE spokesman Mark Langton who told the National Post that they only unveil data “in response to a court-approved warrant regarding specific individuals and as part of an ongoing investigation.”

To try and get a better take on the situation, Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart is currently investigating the matter and the tactics used by government surveillance body the CSE to try and ensure that Canadian citizens’ privacy is always maintained.

The matter is certainly a complicated issue and while those in the telecom industry can try and flex their muscles to allay concerns of their customers, it will ultimately be the Privacy Commissioner and the government who gets the final say on the fate of private data collected on everyday users.

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