Canada Desperately Needs to Have a Public Debate About Encryption

Canadians, as stereotypically polite as we are, have been noticeably angrier lately, and to great effect.

For example, indigenous activists and their allies pressed the new Liberal government to launch a long-awaited inquiry into Canada’s many missing and murdered aboriginal women. Black Lives Matter activists in Toronto raised hell until the province finally announced an inquest into the shooting of Andrew Loku by police.

These were issues worth tackling, and victories well-won, to be sure. But it makes you wonder why we’re still being so polite with the government when it comes to how our police and security agencies spy on people using a seemingly impressive arsenal of high-tech methods. Why haven’t we rallied around the issue of encryption, which cuts across many lines of interest—activists use encryption, too—in a similar way?

This year alone, we found out that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police can crack BlackBerry phones using PGP encryption, and came into possession of the global encryption key that can decipher any and all messages between BlackBerry phones not linked to a corporate account—and the year's not even half over.

Make no mistake: Canada’s police had, and may still have, the golden key to access millions of people’s encrypted communications, which these people may believe to be secure and private.

We need to talk about it.

While Apple and the US Department of Justice duked it out in court over a lawful order to unlock a terror suspect’s phone (the DOJ ultimately abandoned one case), and US civil liberties organizations have taken up the pro-encryption banner, Canadians have been comparatively sedate about the police’s powers to break into our lines of safe communication, often without our knowledge. While the debate in the US has compelled President Barack Obama to speak out on the issue of encryption—not favourably, mind you—our own Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said nary a word.

But sticking our heads in the sand doesn’t stop the encryption debate from playing out all around us. BlackBerry CEO John Chen stated in a 2015 blog post that the company would work with, and not against, law enforcement and comply with all lawful requests for assistance. The police seem to be stroking BlackBerry right back.

A joint investigation by Motherboard and VICE News into the case that sprang from an RCMP investigation called Project Clemenza revealed that the police actually argued against revealing important evidence partly on the grounds that it would harm BlackBerry commercially.

It’s difficult to pin down one reason for the lack of a debate around the powers that our law enforcement agencies possess, and have for years, regarding encryption—a technology that allows people to converse without worrying that anyone, hacker or government spy, is listening in; in a word, freely. Part of the problem is likely that the pool of technical experts in academia and in journalism is much smaller in Canada than it is in the US. We’re a country with the population of California spread out over an area larger than the entire US.

The other part of the problem can be attributed how successful the Canadian government has been at keeping their abilities regarding encryption quiet.

The case of Operation Clemenza shows just how aggressively the RCMP is willing to fight to keep their tools a secret, despite some of these tools—such as StingRay mass surveillance devices—being out in the open in the US. But I think this reticence is indicative of a deeper rot. For all of Canada’s progressive tendencies, which we should be damn proud of, just try and call up the RCMP and say you’re a journalist. For fun, get a friend to call the Department of Justice at the same time and see who gets through faster.

The reality is that you could play this game with any number of public institutions in Canada and the US, and I would bet you the outcome would be the same nearly every time. Despite Trudeau’s promise of better days regarding government transparency, access to resources and information from the public sector is often very difficult to come by in Canada. The continuing difficulty that reporters have in simply asking Members of Parliament questions is a point of utter national shame for us.

It’s time for Canadians to stop being disinterested—or worse, polite—when it comes to police and government agencies spying on us and weakening the digital tools we use to keep ourselves safe from legitimate threats. It’s time for us to get fucking angry.

Call upon Canadian civil liberties organizations like the Canadian Civil Liberties Association to speak out, call upon our Prime Minister and elected officials to say something, and raise hell. It’s time to have the great Northern encryption debate.

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