PICNIC was a Cold War warrantless wiretapping program that began with secret order P.C. 3486 and aimed at those who were deemed disloyal or suspected of disloyalty. You can read more about it Here and Here and find links to the press stories.
So what did Bell Canada have to say about all this? No program could take place in this period and be very effective without Bell Canada. CBC asked Bell the following pointed and direct questions:
1) Why did Bell Telephone agree to provide this surreptitious wire tapping to aid the RCMP in 1951 and again in 1954?
2) Does Bell have any records from the era? If so, what records exist related to this RCMP program?
3) Does Bell know how many wiretaps were conducted during the 1950’s? How many?
4) Does Bell today provide any similar access to any police and/or
intelligence agencies to intercepted private communications (voice, text, data) under any secret orders or programs that are not authorized by the courts?
(For instance, does Bell provide CSIS or CSE access to private
communications, under any Ministerial orders – that are not vetted first by a judge?)
5) If so, how frequently does that occur? And what volumes of calls/texts/data transmissions are intercepted under these extra-judicial orders from government?
This was Bell’s reply:
The documents you’ve found underscore that Bell has always complied with the law. Bell would provide government or law enforcement with access to information only with proper legal authority compelling us to do so. Customer privacy is of critical importance, and Bell fully complies with Canada’s access, privacy and other laws to ensure the protection of our customers’ privacy. One fundamental difference between then and now is that
Bell today competes with multiple carriers across the country in every sector of communications. These same access laws and privacy policies apply to all carriers in Canada.
I am amazed at how I can see words on my screen but they convey nothing. A non-answer is ultimately still an answer. I find a tinge of arrogance or pride in that first line. “oh we’ve always complied with the law.. see??” I think that’s a poor answer. First, wiretapping law wasn’t very clear in this period so it wasn’t that difficult to comply with it. Second, Bell made recommendations to the government on which legal approach to take in creating the program. For instance, the government contemplated using the Railway Act to justify gaining access to the phone lines and Bell suggested it preferred this option rather than using the Official Secrets Act s. 11. This appears to me as a means of trying to help the government devise a legal solution that could work for everyone. Nothing wrong with that in terms of law, but what about ethics?
Customer privacy is a concern of any business. I see this as a meaningless statement as is the final line. Thanks Bell for pointing out that other companies exist now (they did then too). So we’re left with silence on other questions, Bell records, how often wiretaps were ordered and the questions about the present are also not directly addressed. Infer what you will from that reply, but maybe I’m being too critical? Tell Bell below in the comments what you think of their reaction to the creation of a surveillance phone network in the 1950s and a surveillance program that extended beyond that.