Wondering about outsourcing your data to the U.S.? What follows is an update to one of our most popular posts: Outsourcing by Canadian Companies: Another Look at the USA PATRIOT Act, originally written in January 2013.
In that post, we discussed the concern that U.S. government authorities may use the provisions of the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act ("PATRIOT Act") to access the personal information of Canadians where that information is stored in the United States in the context of outsourcing or cloud-computing.
We also noted that for private sector businesses there are no specific legal prohibitions on outsourcing to the United States in light of the PATRIOT Act, provided (1) reasonable safeguards are built into the outsource contract (including confidentiality, use-restrictions, security, and provisions to meet monitoring and audit requirements), and (2) customers are notified in a clear way when their personal information will be stored or handled outside Canada. The only exceptions to this are within the public sector, as reviewed in our earlier post.
What Has Changed and What Remains the Same
This is a complicated area of law. Starting in June 2013, Edward Snowden's revelations about N.S.A.'s pervasive warrantless surveillance programs triggered a broader debate about privacy, as well as the specific risks of outsourcing to U.S. companies.
Certain provisions of the PATRIOT Act expired under a sunset clause on June 1, 2015. The U.S. Congress passed the USA FREEDOM Act on June 2, 2015 (in keeping with the American penchant for legislative acronyms, the full name is "Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ending Eavesdropping, Dragnet-collection and Online Monitoring Act").
The USA FREEDOM Act restores many of the expired provisions of the PATRIOT Act through 2019. Some provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act will expire in 2017 (including Section 702, a provision which underpins some of the N.S.A.'s bulk surveillance of online communications). Under the FREEDOM Act, certain sections of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 were amended in an effort to delimit the NSA's mass data collection programs. However, the restrictions on bulk data collection don't take effect for 6 months after the USA FREEDOM Act is enacted. There is also a carve-out to permit the government to obtain FISA orders during this 180-day period. The effect of this is unclear, but commentators have speculated that during this 6-month grace period the N.S.A. can continue bulk collection, and obtain FISA orders which are not constrained by the requirement for a "selection term".
Furthermore, bulk collection of phone data is not necessarily coming to an end - arguably, it is merely being delegated to the telecoms: "The Freedom Act does take the bulk collection of Americans' telephone records out of the hands of the National Security Agency and leaves those records with the phone companies; it sets up procedures for the NSA to get access to those records when it wants to."
The new law does introduce reforms for oversight of government surveillance. In a nod to transparency, some FISA Court opinions may become available, and technology companies will have the ability to publicly report the number of government surveillance requests or investigation inquiries they receive. Previously, companies were prohibited from reporting that such requests had been received.
Generally, under the FREEDOM Act, indiscriminate bulk data collection is to be reformed by requiring the use of "specific selection terms". In other words, government agencies such as the NSA must use a search term - the name of a specific person, account, address, or personal device, or any other specific identifier - to limit the scope of data collection "to the greatest extent reasonably practicable".
In 2004, after the initial flurry of anxiety about US government surveillance under the PATRIOT Act, the Privacy Commissioner of Canada noted: "The [PATRIOT] Act is simply one example of a law that can give the United States government or its agencies access to personal information about Canadians that has been transferred to the United States. Research done by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner and discussions with the Department of Justice suggest that the USA PATRIOT Act is not likely in the normal course of events to be used to obtain personal information held in the United States about Canadians." (Emphasis added)
In light of the 2013 Snowden revelations (and the 2007 Mark Klein disclosures), we now know that, in fact, the bulk collection of phone and internet data by the N.S.A. would have resulted in a lot of personal information about Canadians being collected by the N.S.A. in the United States through the N.S.A.'s PRISM, ECHELON and related surveillance programs.
Data access by Canadian or American government authorities in the course of investigations is not new. Don't forget that the PATRIOT Act itself was merely an amendment and expansion to a series of existing government investigation tools which were already part of U.S. law, such as the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Money Laundering Control Act and the Bank Secrecy Act. Going back even further, NSA's cooperation and information-sharing with Canadian security agencies actually dates to the 1940s (see: the UK-USA Agreement). However, the sheer scope, breadth and depth of surveillance was new.
The Americans are not the only ones who carry on surveillance. There are a number of Canadian laws that enable police, security agencies and government investigators to obtain access to information held in Canada in the course of an investigation. And as in the U.S., Canadian security agencies have also been caught exceeding the legal limits on their online surveillance (see X (Re), 2013 FC 1275; aff'd 2014 FCA 249, where the Federal Court and Federal Court of Appeal decided that CSIS breached the duty of candour owing to the Court in seeking and obtaining search warrants fro surveillance on Canadians outside Canada).
Canadian police and security agencies can also obtain information held in the U.S., just as American security agencies can obtain records held in Canada through information-sharing agreements, protocols and a bilateral treaty between the United States and Canada known as the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (the "MLAT"). Other countries have similar investigative powers.
While the Americans are making some modest reforms to their surveillance laws, Canadian authorities are actually expanding their reach; the Anti-terrorism Act, 2015 (Bill C-51) was passed on June 9, 2015, and is awaiting royal assent. This new law expands the information-gathering powers between CSIS, police investigators and other Canadian government agencies.
Further, the effect of so-called "boomerang routing" means that online information flowing between a Canadian sender and Canadian recipient is still often routed through the US. (See: IXMaps.ca) Thus, even where data is not physically stored in the US, it may be caught by ongoing N.S.A. surveillance at the point the data traverses through an internet exchange point located within the United States.
As a matter of risk-assessment for Canadian companies outsourcing data to cloud-computing service providers, should you be concerned that your (or your customers') Canadian online data will be subject to access by the U.S. government?
1. We know that for Canadian private sector businesses there are still no legal prohibitions against outsourcing data to the United States (note that the public sector is treated differently);
2. Best practices still dictate that (a) reasonable safeguards should be built into the outsource contract (including confidentiality, use-restrictions, security, and provisions to meet monitoring and audit requirements), and (b) customers should notified in a clear way when their personal information will be stored or handled outside Canada.
3. There can be no doubt that surveillance practices under the (old) PATRIOT Act resulted in the mass indiscriminate collection of internet and phone data for many years (and very likely continues within the 6-month period after enactment of the FREEDOM Act). It appears very likely that Canadian data outsourced to the U.S. was subject to bulk collection by the N.S.A. Due to "boomerang routing", it appears likely that even data stored on servers located within Canada often flows through internet exchange locations within the U.S., and therefore would be susceptible to bulk collection by the N.S.A. The USA FREEDOM Act (which is really the PATRIOT Act 2.0) does impose some mild but important reforms on the scope of N.S.A. surveillance. If bulk data and phone-record collection is actually curtailed, the ongoing risk is associated with "targeted" or "selection term" access, in situations where government security and law enforcement agencies exercise rights of accessing and monitoring online data in the course of investigations of a "specific person, account, address, or personal device" in the U.S. It is worth noting that this ongoing risk of access is similar on both sides of the Canada/U.S. border, since Canadian security and law enforcement agencies have similar powers of investigation, and the two governments can rely on MLAT requests and other information sharing protocols to share data.
When you weigh the issues and risks associated with outsourcing Canadian data to the U.S., consider these points and seek advice from experienced IT and privacy counsel.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.