The RCMP wants to build a ‘new public narrative’ on online surveillance, documents show
A four-page memo obtained by VICE News sheds light on how the Royal Canadian Mounted Police intends to lobby the public for new surveillance powers.
As the Trudeau government contemplates new powers for the federal police force, the documents call for the RCMP to push for “the creation of a new public narrative around why police need judicially authorized and timely access to online information.”
The memo was prepared by the RCMP in advance of a February meeting in Washington, D.C., where Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale sat down with his American, British, Australian, and New Zealand counterparts in the Five Eyes intelligence partnership.
“Foremost, the problem must be articulated in terms of its impact on safety and the economic well-being of individuals and businesses,” the memo, obtained through an access to information request, states. “This will require messaging that aims to re-establish the importance of balancing community safety needs with online privacy and anonymity expectations.”
The memo lists four perceived problems where the RCMP want to push this “new public narrative” — a lack of interception hardware on Canadian telecommunication networks, the use of encryption to protect communications, the deletion of user data by companies, and the inability to obtain users’ data hosted in some foreign countries.
All four of these issues later showed up in national security consultations set up by the Liberal government, spearheaded by Minister Goodale. Those consultations will inform new anti-terrorism legislation expected in the new year.
These documents clearly lay out how the RCMP intends to frame the public debate, and exactly which issues they intend on pursuing, but — even internally — the RCMP has remained vague over what legal powers they are actually seeking.
Legal powers to compel decryption and mandate interception have been proposed before, but they were shelved by the previous government because they could undercut Canadians’ privacy, civil liberties, and the right to be free of self-incrimination, or because they could weaken cyber-security at Canada’s major telecommunications industries.
The previous Canadian government tried to sell to the public mandatory decryption powers and more expansive communication interception technology in Bill C-30, in 2012. Then-Public Safety Minister Vic Toews employed the euphemistic tagline of “lawful access,” only to have that phrase pick up negative connotation as public opinion turned against many of those legislative proposals. The bill was later shelved and, ultimately, killed.
The RCMP is not looking to make the same mistake.
“It will be important for the Public Safety Portfolio to reframe ‘lawful access’ as broader ‘going dark’ digital evidence challenges,” the February memo reads. The Public Safety Portfolio includes everyone from Minister Ralph Goodale to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the Canadian Border Services Agency.
Minister Goodale has, himself, been using the rhetorical device of “going dark” more and more lately. It has also been a catchphrase that FBI Director James Comey has employed liberally in recent years.
The RCMP underscores: “This will need to be supported by evidence of the impacts on police operations of the various digital evidence challenges.”
The RCMP had a chance to lay out its public relations case around “going dark” when it partnered with the CBC and Toronto Star for a five-part series that sought to showcase ten cases where the federal police’s investigations were thwarted by technological shortfalls.
One graphic provided to the CBC, which purports to show that Canada lags behind the rest of its Five Eyes partners when it comes to “investigative capability,” is also included in the documents obtained by VICE News.
But the memo obtained by VICE News was not just an overview. It proposed a new communications and partnership plan for the police agency.
“It is recommended that you actively support action towards further senior-level engagement of [technology service providers], other IT industry partners, and privacy-related academics by the Five Eyes partner countries as such,” the memo, addressed to an unnamed official, reads.
When asked by VICE News what that outreach entailed, an RCMP spokesperson said in an email: “The RCMP has been attending conferences and working with partners on developing solutions for going dark. The main point of highlighting some of the challenges to law enforcement on Going Dark has been to educate the public and open public debate in order to arrive at solutions to combat the issue of cybercrime.”
“There’s a bunch going on in this document. I think you have to sort of squint and peer at it through foggy glasses for it to appear accurate.”
A request sent to Minister Goodale’s office about the nature of the memo, and on whether his office signed off on this new public relations plan, went unanswered.
The last time these powers were on the table, under the guise of Bill C-30 and “lawful access,” it was met with widespread backlash.
That legislation would have given police warrantless access to internet users’ personal data, required telecommunications companies to install interception powers on their networks, and would have forced companies to decrypt information on their networks. The RCMP has put those powers back on the table, and Goodale’s national security consultations have raised the spectre of re-writing those proposals into law.
Christopher Parsons, managing director of the Telecom Transparency Project and a research associate with the Citizen Lab in the Munk School, says the documents expose some of the vagueness in this public relations campaign from the RCMP.
“I think you have to sort of squint and peer at it through foggy glasses for it to appear accurate,” Parsons told VICE News.
Parsons does say that the police force has effectively launched a broad discussion about these perceived legal and policing problems, but are not offering clear arguments for the powers they are seeking.
“What they’re saying is: There’s this new technology and it’s creating some real problems, but it doesn’t seem clear to me that they’re saying: here’s how we’re going to roll back the clock.”