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Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance.

Posted by Matt on January 31, 2014         Tagged with: surveillance

Last week a number of Ukranians received what Vice magazine described as Maybe The Most Orwellian Text Message A Government Has Ever Sent: "Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance."

What many people suspected at the time, and what has now been confirmed, was that Ukranian cell phone service providers had turned over "tower dumps" to Ukranian authorities. As you walk around a city, your cell phone is constantly searching for the closet cell phone tower to talk to. A tower dump is a record of which cell phones were talking to a particular cell phone tower at a particular date and time. With this information, the authorities can easily create a list of individuals who were in the area during a protest and thus were likely involved. Sure, this time they only used this list to send text message, but it's still a chilling situation. Even more chilling if you're the guy who just happened to be walking by at the time and now find yourself in the government's sights as a registered protester.

The Washington Post reports that in addition to being Orwellian, the text messages appear to have been entirely ineffective:

Yet despite what appears to be an attempt to use the geolocation technology built into cellphones to clamp on dissent, Kramer reports that the text messages had little effect on the ongoing protests in Kiev. "Three hours after it was sent," he wrote, "the riot police pushed past barricades of burned buses on Hrushevskoho Street near Parliament but were nonetheless met by a crowd of protesters in ski masks and helmets carrying sticks and ready to fight."

If you're thinking "Oh well, that's Ukraine, such a thing could never take place in North America", then you must be new here. The Washington Post article reports that US law enforcement agencies made over 9,000 requests to cell phone companies for tower dumps in 2012 alone. And here in Canada, the Harper government has been pushing to make this kind of information more easily available to law enforcement for almost two years now.

Back in February, 2012, Canada's Conservative government was hoping to table new "lawful access" legislation. This legislation would have made it easier for police to get access to communication metadata without having to go through the hassle of going to court to get a warrant. Metadata is data associated with a communication. For an email, metadata might include the sender, the receiver and the date and time the email was sent, but not the contents of the email. Metadata associated with a text message might include the sender, the receiver, the date and time the message was sent and the cell towers the sender and receiver were connected to at the time.

The legislation was widely criticized. One of the government's go-to defenses of the legislation was that it only provided warrantless access to metadata and not the contents of the communication. Metadata, they suggested, didn't matter. It wasn't important and there was no danger in letting police have easier access to it. (Another, less carefully considered defense was that anyone who opposed the lawful access bill was on the side of the child pornographers).

Not everyone was convinced. Some people saw how a system of warrantless metadata collection was ripe for abuse. At the time, David Fraser wrote:

But it is expected to set up a system under which the police can get a huge list of non-content personal information without a warrant. And this is very bad.

Ask yourself this:

Should the police be able to get access to the names and addresses of anyone who shows up at a G20 protest? An Occupy protest? A Stanley Cup riot? Parliament Hill? The PM's residence? An abortion clinic? A sketchy part of town? If this bill looks anything like the last, they will be able to on a whim without any judicial oversight.

Well, thank you very much Ukraine, for proving his point.

While the government eventually chose to let that particular piece of legislation die, that doesn't mean they gave up on the principles it embodies. In November 2013, the government announced it would table new legislation to combat cyber-bulling. After Bill C-13, The Protecting Canadians From Online Crime Act was tabled and was made public, a number of people pointed out that it contains provisions which are similar to what was in the lawful access legislation. This includes a lowered standard for obtaining a production order from a court directing anyone in possession of "transmission data" relating to a communication to provide that data to the police. This isn't completely warrantless access, although the only thing that is required to obtain the order is that the police have reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence has been or will be committed under the Criminal Code or any other act of Parliament. That covers a lot of ground.

Of course, this kind of information can be useful for criminal investigations and in certain circumstances it's proper for the police to have access to cell phone tower data that relates to a specific individual or individuals. But as Ukraine has demonstrated, there's a danger to making it too easy for police to have access to this kind of information. The next time you hear a politician say that the collection of metadata isn't an invasion of privacy, imagine how you'd feel getting a text message like the one above.