Parliamentary committee to begin study of RCMP’s use of cellphone spyware
OTTAWA — A parliamentary committee will begin exploring the RCMP’s use of spyware on Monday, diving deeper into an issue that’s sounded alarms for privacy and civil liberties groups across the country.
The House of Commons ethics and privacy committee called for a summer study after the RCMP revealed its use of tools that covertly obtain data from devices like phones and computers.
In response to a written question tabled in the House of Commons in June, the RCMP disclosed it had obtained warrants to use tools that collect text messages and emails and can remotely turn on cameras and microphones in 10 investigations.
“We are talking about the most intrusive thing that exists,” said privacy and technology lawyer David Fraser.
“This would be like an order allowing the police to kind of put on an invisibility cloak and sit on your living room couch, or on your bedside table.”
Fraser said that’s why a high level of scrutiny should be applied to requests for this type of warrant.
“I think part of the important discussion that should be taking place here … would be to make sure that any technique that is as intrusive as this is subject to the highest standard of probable cause and that the police should have to convince the judge that other techniques have been tried and have failed.”
As an alternative approach, Fraser said the committee could look to the methods used when the Canadian Security Intelligence Service seeks a warrant for its investigations.
“(CSIS officials) go to a bunker in Ottawa and they meet in what amounts to a secret court,” he said. “It’s designated judges of the Federal Court who, ex parte — so without anybody on the other side — review applications for warrants under the CSIS Act that can be incredibly intrusive.”
Policing expert and Queen’s University professor Christian Leuprecht said technological change is outpacing the legal framework, and politicians are often unwilling to step in and adjust policies to help it keep up.
“This is the sort of issue that requires politicians to sit down and say, ‘OK, we have this technology, this is how we’ve decided you’re allowed to use it,’” he said.
Leuprecht agreed there should be a high level of scrutiny on the types of technology police are using, particularly given the RCMP’s power to arrest and detain.
“The Communication Security Establishment, this is a high-tech agency that is very well versed in how to use data and technology,” Luprecht said. “Whereas you might say with the RCMP, that’s not their primary bread and butter, so there’s a much higher risk that the RCMP might make the wrong decision, draw the wrong inferences.”
The committee has the opportunity to decide whether the current laws are sufficient to protect Canadians’ privacy. It could decide the RCMP needs to submit annual reports for further transparency.
Typically, police use of surveillance technology is kept secret, Fraser said, and he would like to see a framework put in place so that new technology has to go through independent scrutiny.
“I have zero comfort in imagining what is the process currently adopted by law enforcement in Canada to determine the appropriateness of the use of certain technologies.”
Brenda McPhail, the director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s privacy, technology and surveillance program, released a statement in late June asking a host of questions about how the technology is being used and why the privacy commissioner was not consulted on its deployment.
“What tools are being used, and who supplies them?” McPhail wrote. “Is it one of the many vendors of spyware known for selling such tools to authoritarian states who use it to target human rights defenders and journalists?”
Fraser said that is another important question for the committee to consider.
“If the police can remotely get into anybody’s smartphone, that means that there’s something defective with that smartphone that the police are exploiting and that bad guys can also exploit,” he said.
The “ethical thing to do” in that case, Fraser said, is for police or spy agencies to report any such loopholes to smartphone makers.
“They’re never going to do that unless they’re told,” he said.
Witnesses appearing during the scheduled two days of hearings include Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, the current federal privacy commissioner and his deputy, and RCMP officers who oversaw the use of spyware.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 7, 2022.
Sarah Ritchie, The Canadian Press
Federal budget 2022: Highest-earning Canadians face minimum tax rate increase
The federal government is moving to raise the minimum tax rate paid by wealthy Canadians in the budget and narrowing its focus on the highest earners.
In its budget Tuesday, Ottawa is raising the alternative minimum tax rate and imposing new limits on many of the exemptions, deductions and credits that apply under the system starting in 2024.
“We’re making sure the very wealthy and our biggest corporations pay their fair share of taxes, so we can afford to keep taxes low for middle-class families,” Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said in the prepared text of her remarks.
The alternative minimum tax (AMT) introduced in 1986 is a parallel income tax calculation that allows fewer deductions, exemptions and tax credits than the ordinary tax rules for the country’s highest earners. Wealthy Canadians pay the alternative minimum or regular tax, whichever is higher.
The government announced in the budget that it is increasing the alternative minimum rate to 20.5 per cent from 15 per cent starting in 2024.
To help ensure lower- and middle-income Canadians don’t get caught up in the increase, Ottawa is also proposing to increase the exemption to the start of the fourth federal tax bracket from $40,000. For 2024, it expects the exemption would be about $173,000 and be indexed annually to inflation.
The government estimates that under the new rules about 32,000 Canadians will be covered by alternative minimum tax in 2024, compared with about 70,000 if it did not make the changes.
However, the higher rate and revamping of the allowable deductions and credits mean Ottawa expects to take in an additional $150 million in 2023-24 and an additional $625 million in 2024-25.
Bruce Ball, vice-president for tax at CPA Canada, said there is a broader range of things that will go into the alternative minimum tax calculation, but the good news for most taxpayers is that the threshold will be much higher.
“That should exclude a lot of people even if they have more add-backs than they would have under the old system, so there’s some good news and bad news I guess, depending on your situation,” Ball said.
“If you’re higher income you may end up paying more; if you’re lower income you may not be subject to AMT.”
While the richest Canadians face the possibility of higher taxes, the budget also includes a one-time payment for those who receive the goods and services tax credit to help offset the rising cost of living.
“We all know that our most vulnerable friends and neighbours are still feeling the bite of higher prices. And that is why our budget delivers targeted inflation relieve to those who need it most,” Freeland said.
Under the proposal billed as a grocery rebate, Canadians who are eligible will receive an additional amount equal to twice the GST tax credit amount for January. For couples with two children the amount could be up to $467, while a single Canadian without children could receive up to an extra $234.
Student budgets will also see a boost from the budget as the government increases the Canada Student Grants compared with pre-pandemic levels and raises the interest-free Canada Student Loan limit.
The changes increase the total federal aid available to a full-time student based on financial need to $14,400 for 2023, up from $13,160 for 2022 and $10,140 in 2019 before the pandemic.
The government is also moving to cap the increase on alcohol excise duties to two per cent for one year. Ordinarily, the rates are indexed to the consumer price index and were previously set to rise by 6.3 per cent.
However, Canadians looking to take a flight next year will face an increase in the air travellers security charge paid by those flying in Canada starting on May 1, 2024. The charges, which are paid by passengers when they buy an airline ticket, help pay for the air travel security system and were last increased in 2010.
The charge for a domestic round trip will rise to $19.87, from its current rate of $14.96. The charge for a transborder flight to the U.S. will rise to $16.89 from $12.71, while for departing international flights travellers will pay $34.42, up from $25.91.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 28, 2023.
Ottawa requests joint ‘working group’ on oilsands contamination with Alberta
Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault has further spelled out what he wants to see in a new body that would oversee monitoring and communications around pollution problems in the oilsands.
In a letter dated March 16 to his Alberta counterpart Sonya Savage, Guilbeault said the new federal-provincial-Indigenous group would look at a wide variety of issues stemming from releases of tailings pond water from Imperial Oil’s Kearl mine. Although Savage has agreed to a new joint body, Guilbeault’s proposal seems to go farther than what she suggests.
“I am proposing the establishment of a joint federal-provincial-Indigenous working group, with participation from the oil companies, to give transparency to all parties involved by meeting on a regular basis to discuss remediation and containment plans, as well as notifications for ongoing incidents of spill or seepage,” Guilbeault wrote in the letter.
“A communication protocol should be established,” he said. “It would be the basis of improvements for future environmental emergencies notifications, reform of water monitoring and strong involvement of Indigenous communities.”
Guilbeault said the exact mandate has yet to be determined. Still, it seems to be more than Savage wants.
A statement from her office earlier this week said Alberta wants to improve communications and start a group for “accelerating collaboration on a long-term solution for the treatment and remediation of tailings ponds.”
That statement didn’t mention including First Nations in the group or any reforms to monitoring.
Guilbeault’s letter refers to Ottawa’s responsibilities in protecting fish habitat and treaty rights, both of which may have been affected by the Kearl releases.
That’s a message to the province that Ottawa intends to have a greater role in monitoring the oilsands, said Martin Olszynski, a professor of resource law at the University of Calgary.
“What (Guilbeault’s) saying is, ‘Let’s be clear, I have to be involved.’ The jurisdiction is clearly there for the federal government.”
Ottawa has been criticized both at home and internationally for inconsistent enforcement of the Fisheries Act.
In 2020, the environmental watchdog set up under North American trade agreements found there was valid evidence of oilsands tailings in groundwater around the ponds but no sign that it had affected any federal enforcement decisions. That same body found little co-ordination between Ottawa and Edmonton on the issue.
Guilbeault’s letter may be a sign the feds are taking action on those concerns, Olszynski said.
“They recognize this is a bigger issue. It’s not just about notification, it’s a question of what is going on with these tailings and their management.”
The first release from Kearl was spotted and reported in May as discoloured water near a tailings pond. It was found to be tailings seepage but no further updates were provided to area First Nations until February, when it was disclosed to the public and both environment ministers along with a second release of 5.3 million litres of tailings.
Imperial said earlier this week that the cleanup of the second spill is nearly complete. It said the seepage is being “mitigated,” although it continues.
Both Imperial and the provincial government say there has been no impact on waterways or wildlife, although neither have granted requests to see the data on which that assurance is based.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 17, 2023.
Bob Weber, The Canadian Press
Canada sending four more battle tanks, ammunition to Ukraine
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced today that Canada is providing Ukraine with more weapons, which he says will help the country win on the battlefield against Russia.
Trudeau says Canada will donate four additional Leopard 2 main battle tanks to support the Armed Forces of Ukraine, growing Canada’s contribution to eight tanks in total.
Canada will also donate an armoured recovery vehicle and over 5,000 rounds of ammunition.
Trudeau committed to imposing more sanctions on people and businesses that are complicit in Russia’s ongoing war with Ukraine.
On the one year anniversary of the invasion, Trudeau called Russian President Vladimir Putin a coward and weak, and reinforced that Canada is a friend of Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told reporters in a press conference on Friday that more weapons will allow his people to regain their territory.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 24, 2023.
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