It may sound as though I am harping on the subject of there being no privacy on the Internet.

But in fact there is no privacy on the Internet. A current controversy in Canada highlights this.

The federal privacy commissioner’s office released documents earlier this year showing that Canada’s federal government asked the heavily regulated telecoms (phone and Internet companies) to disclose private information about customers 1.2 million times per year, according to documents released in 2011. (Figures for further years were not released.)

There are about 35 million people in Canada. The companies gave the government the data at least 784,756 times (only three of the nine telecoms reported, so the total is probably greater).

The industry association won’t say, even to the privacy commissioner, how often individual companies released information without a warrant. A warrant would imply suspected criminal activity. And even the privacy commissioner concedes that there are cases where there would not be time to get one. But, said privacy commissioner Chantal Bernier, they won’t tell, and we don’t know.

In any event, it is unlikely that the scope of crime in Canada is more than a tiny fraction of these figures.

According to University of Ottawa law professor, Michael Geist, “2010 RCMP data showed 94% of requests involving customer name and address information was provided voluntarily without a warrant.” Canada Border Services Agency accessed telecom customer data nearly 19,000 times in one year, and over 99% of searches were warrantless.

Geist also notes something else: “Moreover, virtually all providers sought compensation for complying with the requests.” While he doesn’t say so, it sounds like a business opportunity for the telecoms. He adds,

Providers admit that they do not notify customers that their information has been requested, thereby denying them the ability to challenge the demand in court. Moreover, documents released earlier this year suggested that companies such as Bell have even established a law enforcement database that may provide authorities with direct access to subscriber information. The systems may create great efficiencies for law enforcement – click, access subscriber data, and receive a bill from the telecom company – but they suggest a system that is entirely devoid of oversight with even the Privacy Commissioner excluded from ensuring compliance with the law.

Bernier hoped to get the Communications Security Establishment Canada (the federal electronic eavesdropper) to explain its business to the country more clearly, especially since the information she had so far received did not provide enough detail to draw any conclusions.

Well, in the transparency lineup, Establishment Canada is two or three spots behind James Bond.

Defending the telecoms,

In an email to CBC News, a spokesman for Bell said the company shares only “411-style” details without a warrant.

“Bell will only provide law enforcement and other authorized agencies with basic 411-style customer information such as name and address, which is defined as non-confidential and regulated by the CRTC,” Mark Langton said in an email.

“Any further information, or anything related to an unlisted number, requires a court order,” he added.

The obvious question is, then why can’t the government use 411, or if it must create a record, why not reveal it? In any event, Bell Canada, hit with 170 citizen complaints, was under investigation at the time.

One issue is that federal privacy laws are ten years old, which is a century in Internet time. Yet Ron Deibert, director of the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, an Internet privacy monitor, is surprised at how few people seem upset by government eavesdropping via telecom and digital media: “We leave this digital exhaust everywhere around us that’s mostly in the hands of the private sector.”

Yes, the private sector if we are lucky. Usually, the private sector just wants to sell us something. Governments are often much more ambitious.

Is it worse in Canada than elsewhere? Probably not. American firms such as Verizon,AT&T, and Sprint, engage in the same practices, getting cash for co-operation.

The only reason there was suddenly so much disclosure in Canada is that a bill has been introduced into the House of Commons to expand warrantless disclosure and create immunity from criminal and civil liability in such cases. So the privacy commission got around to asking what the telecoms had been doing before…

The reality is that, while the Internet offers ease of information for citizens, it also provides governments and private concerns with unlimited opportunities for tracking our movements. It’s not here or there, it is everywhere.

It is time we stopped being complacent about it.

See also: There is no such thing as anonymity in social media. Not when so many sources want the information.

Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...