A Summary of Internet Surveillance Legislation

Internet surveillance laws in Canada and around the world
June 19, 2009

The Canadian government has been trying to modernize its surveillance and wiretapping laws for years now, to take into account the growth of cellphone and internet communications. Canada’s current telephone wiretap laws are more than 30 years old. Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan said in June 2009 that the current legal framework was designed “in the era of the rotary telephone.”

In November 2005, the Liberal government at the time introduced legislation to that end. The Modernization of Investigative Techniques Act would have required internet companies to give the police confidential information on their subscribers, including name, address and phone numbers. The bill would also have required cellphone and internet companies to add surveillance hardware and software to their networks.

That bill was introduced about a week before a vote of no confidence and the dissolution of Parliament, and it died when the Liberals lost the election in January 2006.

In 2007, a document obtained by CBC News suggested that government agencies were seeking consultation on how law enforcement and national security agencies could gain lawful access to customers’ information without a court order. Days later, Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day said that warrants would be required to gain customer information under any new surveillance law.

“We have not and we will not be proposing legislation to grant police the power to get information from internet companies without a warrant. That’s never been a proposal,” Day said.

Another law — the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Document Act, or PIPEDA — was passed in 2004 and intended to protect the private information that consumers give to companies in the course of doing business. PIPEDA already allows for internet service providers and other private companies to disclose personal information to law enforcement officials to comply with subpoenas or warrants, or in emergency situations where an individual’s life, health or security is potentially threatened.

In June 2009, Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan announced the latest bills intended to modernize the Criminal Code.

“We must ensure that law enforcement has the necessary tools to catch up to the bad guys and ultimately bring them to justice. Twenty-first century technology calls for 21st-century tools,” Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said when the bills were announced.

In a reversal from Day’s position in 2007, one of the new bills would require internet service providers and cellphone companies to provide police with “timely access” to personal information about subscribers — including names, address and internet addresses — without the need for a warrant.

The government news release announcing these bills said, “Other countries, such as the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Germany and Sweden, already have similar legislation in place.” Here’s the legal situation in those countries.

United Kingdom

The Regulation of Investigatory Power Act of 2000, also called RIPA, is a comprehensive surveillance law that covers everything from the use of closed-circuit TV cameras to the use of moles in criminal investigations. RIPA includes provisions that require ISPs to install systems to aid investigators in tracking electronic communications.

United States

The USA Patriot Act, enacted following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, made several changes to U.S. law intended to combat terrorism. It expanded the ability of law enforcement agencies to search communications, medical and financial records. It also extended the use of wiretaps to include internet connections.

Also, the Bush administration authorized the National Security Agency to conduct warrantless domestic wiretaps in 2001, possibly earlier. This was first revealed in the media in The New York Times in December 2005.

Two subsequent laws, the Protect America Act of 2007 and FISA Amendments Act of 2008, extended the NSA’s authority on domestic wiretaps.

In February 2009, a federal Appeals Court in San Francisco rejected the Obama administration’s request to stop a lawsuit challenging the government’s warrantless wiretapping program on the grounds that it is a potential threat to national security.


The Surveillance Devices Bill of 2004 allows Australian Federal Police to obtain warrants for the use of data, optical, listening and tracking surveillance devices. The Intelligence Services Act of 2001 covers the use of surveillance devices by the country’s security agencies.

New Zealand

The Search and Surveillance Powers Bill was introduced in September 2008 to update the surveillance powers and procedures New Zealand’s law enforcement agencies.


In 2006, the western German state of North-Rhine Westphalia adopted a law that gave intelligence agencies broad powers to spy on and hack into the computers of terror suspects, including infecting them with spyware viruses. Germany’s highest court overturned that law in 2008, saying: “The law violates the right to privacy and is null and void.”

However, the Constitutional Court also ruled that the government is allowed to conduct surveillance on internet communications in cases where it could prevent loss of life or an attack on the country. The court said agencies must get permission from a judge before they can secretly upload spyware to a suspect’s computer.


Sweden’s parliament approved new laws in June 2008 to allow the country’s intelligence bureau to track sensitive words in international phone calls, faxes and emails without a court order. The law took effect in January 2009. Opposition critics and civil liberties organizations have called the law the most far-reaching electronic surveillance law in Europe.

Source / CBC News

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