The border agency says that in 2012, only 25 of its 19,000 requests were refused by the telecoms, and only 13 customers were notified that the government had sought their records. Aspects of the handovers seem to happen automatically – with the telecoms typically charging only $1 to $3 for a “BSI” request and the answers usually coming back within three business days.
Every other federal investigative agency says it cannot or will not publicly provide such precise details of their relationships with the telecoms.
In this context, the CBSA disclosure is important and unprecedented, say digital privacy experts, who argue that the agency’s numbers suggest many more exchanges are occurring between the telecoms and other government agencies as well.
“It makes me wonder what other structures and costs are in place,” said Christopher Parsons, a researcher at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab. He pointed out that the Mounties and Canada’s intelligence agencies failed to release data.
Though CBSA is being pilloried at the moment for the number of times that it accessed telecommunications data (18,849 times in 2012), the agency should be congratulated as comprehensively responding to MP Borg’s questions. Only the Transportation Safety Board provided a comparable degree of accountability to the Parliamentarian. While I’d like CBSA to go further – we shouldn’t depend on a Parliamentarian’s curiosity to learn about state surveillance practices – the agency has, ultimately, created the model that other federal institutions ought to be forced to follow.