In The Media

Calgary police support call for law that would force people to reveal passwords

by Emma McIntosh (feat. Tom Keenan)

Calgary Herald
August 17, 2016

Calgary police Chief Roger Chaffin was among those at the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police who voted Tuesday to ask for legal means to obtain such digital evidence, saying it would help law enforcement keep pace with cybercrime. But civil liberties advocates say such a law would be highly problematic, and might even clash with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“When the chiefs of police want this sort of self-incrimination and openness, will it apply to them as well?” said Rocky Mountain Civil Liberties Association director Sharon Polsky, insisting it would be “flagrantly in violation” of Canadians’ privacy rights. 

Current laws don’t allow police to compel someone to give them a password. Deputy Chief Sat Parhar, who was in Ottawa with Chaffin to vote on the resolution, said the new legislation would be a guide for law enforcement, outlining when it is and isn’t OK to access certain data. 

“There’s a rule book, the rule book is the criminal code,” said Parhar.

“We’re just saying this needs to be represented in the rule book . . . You don’t want the police doing things without some sort of guidance through the law.”

But Polsky said a judge’s consent isn’t enough, and many don’t have enough knowledge of digital security to fully understand what they’re giving police access to.

“It’s too easy to hoodwink (judges),” she said.

Police demands for access to online communications, and the concerns of civil libertarians about privacy rights, have created tensions around the globe in recent years.

The issue became especially prominent last year, when the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation went to court in a bid to compel Apple to reveal the password of a terror suspect’s iPhone following a mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif.

And in a news conference Tuesday, RCMP assistant commissioner Joe Oliver said criminals are operating in complete anonymity online in Canada thanks to encryption, concealing everything from identities to messages. Police call the phenomenon “going dark.”

“The victims in the digital space are real,” Oliver said.

“Canada’s law and policing capabilities must keep pace with the evolution of technology.”

The Supreme Court of Canada prohibited the warrantless search of cellphones in 2013.

In a landmark case the following year, it ruled that such searches could be acceptable in certain circumstances. That judgment, however, warned that safeguards should be added to balance the rights of the accused with public safety concerns. 

Polsky said such measures haven’t kept Canadians safe in the past. 

“We’re being told that we have to give up our freedom and right to privacy for some vague promise, some vague greater good,” she said.

“It started with 9/11 and, since then, all we’ve heard is that we have to give up some of our freedoms to get security . . . It hasn’t stopped terrorism, it hasn’t stopped crime, it hasn’t stopped a lot of the things it was supposed to.”

Problematic, too, is the amount of information a simple password can reveal. Granting police such access can dredge up data completely unrelated to an investigation, said University of Calgary professor Tom Keenan, a research fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

“Your phone knows so much about you, probably even things you don’t know it knows,” Keenan said. 

“Your phone is almost like another part of your body.” 

Because so many people keep their electronics on them at all times, Keenan said everything from your location to your friends is stored on devices.

“(If police are allowed to access that data) people will have to change their behaviour with regards to their phones,” he said.

Still, Parhar said a law compelling citizens to hand over their passwords would help law enforcement with everything from high-profile anti-terrorism efforts to the more everyday fraud cases. 

“We don’t want to abuse it — the idea here is that we’re actually going through a process that’s guided by law,” he said. 

“Police have to have a presence in that world.”

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