Police want you to pay for their wire taps
Sunday, Aug 15, 2004
By JIM BRONSKILL
Ottawa — Canada's police chiefs propose a surcharge of about 25 cents on monthly telephone and Internet bills to cover the cost of tapping into the communications of terrorists and other criminals.
The suggestion is intended to resolve a standoff between police forces and telecommunications companies over who should foot the expense of providing investigators with access to phone calls and e-mail messages.
Police say they cannot — and should not — be forced to pay the often hefty costs involved in carrying out court-approved wiretaps and message searches, warning that investigations will suffer if they are expected to pick up the tab.
“This is a very, very serious issue for us. It has a potential for really paralyzing operations,” said Supt. Tom Grue, a member of the law amendments committee of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.
But the country's largest phone company believes that telecommunications firms and law-enforcement agencies, not subscribers, should split the costs.
“We think there should be more of a partnership between the agencies and us, rather than getting the public to pay for it,” said Bell Canada spokeswoman Jacqueline Michelis.
The matter has taken on new urgency as the federal government prepares legislation aimed at preventing criminals from using new digital technologies to shield their communications from police and intelligence agencies.
Authorities argue the measures are needed to keep up with sophisticated criminals involved in such activities as terrorism, money laundering, child pornography and murder.
The legislative proposals, outlined two years ago, have raised the hackles of privacy advocates and civil libertarians.
Bubbling in the background is the equally thorny debate about money.
Under the federal proposals, service providers would be required, when upgrading their systems, to build in the technical capabilities needed by police and intelligence agencies, such as the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, to easily tap communications.
The controversy revolves around the ongoing costs of looking up phone numbers, hooking up to networks and relaying communications from one city to another — individual services that may cost anywhere from pocket change to thousands of dollars.
Currently, a hodgepodge of payment practices applies, from negotiation of fees by the parties involved to refusal by some police forces to accept the bills.
Supt. Grue, a member of the Edmonton police force, said the costs should be spread as widely as possible to avoid unduly burdening a small number of parties.
The association of police chiefs, which represents the majority of Canadian forces, argues one way to accomplish that is adding a fee to each subscriber's monthly telephone, cellular or Internet bill.
“We're thinking, amongst ourselves, 25 cents. Whether that would cover off all the costs, we don't know. We haven't done the analysis on it,” Supt. Grue said.
“But if you impose too great of a burden or put too high of a fee, then it becomes less and less attractive, obviously.”
Supt. Grue compares the proposed fee to the one customers already pay to support 911 emergency service, which ranges from about 25 to 50 cents a month depending on the type of telephone plan.
Bell Canada's Ms. Michelis wants to pull the plug on the idea of a wiretap charge.
“We don't really think the cost should be flipped over to the general public,” she said.
“I don't know how popular that's going to be, something like that. Twenty-five cents is a really significant amount to add to everybody's phone bill.”
Tom Copeland, a spokesman for the Canadian Association of Internet Providers, said tacking a fee on monthly bills “might work” but could create a burdensome administrative regime that hampers companies, especially small ones with few staff.
Supt. Grue said it's “a bit of a mystery” to him why the industry is decidedly less than enthusiastic about the idea. “All companies would have that fee on the bill, so it's not like you're giving one company a competitive advantage over another company.”
Federal officials have convened meetings of the various players to try to work out the issues.
Internal Justice Department notes prepared following a roundtable session in December stressed the need “not to further exacerbate the situation.”
Bell Canada says it has invested heavily in infrastructure to allow for wiretaps and is only trying to recover its costs on the day-to-day services provided to police and intelligence agencies.
“Bell has already spent millions of dollars on this initiative and it's going to continue costing us a huge amount of money going forward,” Ms. Michelis said. “We are looking to get some sort of compensation on the ongoing costs.”
For the police, it's a matter of principle.
“From our perspective, it's a very slippery slope to start paying for the execution of search warrants or any kind of a court order,” said Supt. Grue.
Lucie Angers, a senior Justice Department lawyer, indicated the issues will be resolved at the political level.
“You have different interests at stake,” she said. “There's good sums of money that are involved in taking these decisions.”
Federal officials are interested in a solution that would “balance the costs,” said Simone McAndrew, a spokeswoman for the Public Safety Department.
“Any proposal that is brought forward will be considered.”
CSIS had no comment.
Mr. Copeland said if subscribers end up funding the surveillance effort through monthly fees, Canadians would “demand a great deal more explanation” about the initiative and how it affects their constitutional and privacy rights.
And should the money come from law-enforcement budgets, the public will be contributing “out the back door” through tax revenues, he noted.
“One way or another, Canadians are going to pay.”