March 30, 2023

Vulnerable Connections

The Expert Panel on Public Safety in the Digital Age

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The proliferation of ever-changing digital technologies has led to substantial cyber-enabled harms for those in Canada, even for those who are largely offline. Approaches by different orders of government, law enforcement, and the private sector have been insufficient to address the challenges presented by this changing digital landscape while ensuring privacy and human rights are respected.

Digital technologies provide spaces for all kinds of social interactions — good and bad. Despite the efforts of public and private entities, communities, and law enforcement, it is often unclear where one can turn when such interactions become harmful. Further, not all cyber-enabled harms can or should be addressed through state-sanctioned rules. Fostering a safer online ecosystem is a collective endeavour which includes civil societies, policy-makers, law enforcement agencies, and the private sector.

Vulnerable Connections explores the challenges and opportunities related to the regulation, prevention, investigation, prosecution, and countering of cyber-enabled crimes and harms. It details the complex social and legal issues underpinning digital public safety and the importance of accountable approaches to addressing cyber-enabled crimes and harms.

The sponsor:

Public Safety Canada

The question:

Considering the impact that advances in information and communications technologies have had on a global scale, what do current evidence and knowledge suggest regarding promising and leading practices that could be applied in Canada for investigating, preventing, and countering threats to public safety while respecting human rights and privacy?

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Digital technologies and platforms have drastically altered day-to-day life in Canada, bringing considerable benefits along with the risk of substantial harm. Everyone’s experiences are shaped in some way by digital technologies, whether they are online or not. Digital technologies permeate all institutions and, as a result, everyone in Canada is increasingly exposed to a wide range of potential online threats to their public safety. Some of the threats facilitated by information and communication technologies (ICTs) are not new, but they are now occurring in digital spaces and on a larger scale, while other harms are emerging and rapidly evolving. In this context, the role of law enforcement, governments, and the private sector in protecting digital public safety is in flux, and it is unclear where, how, and from whom people can seek help when targeted by malicious actors.

Report findings

  • All people living in Canada are digital-by-default, even if they are offline or rarely use digital technologies. While the digital context brings considerable benefits, it can also compromise everyone’s safety.
  • Technologies have drastically altered day-to-day life in Canada, yet the approaches taken by governments and the private sector, including laws and policies, have not always kept up with new challenges.
  • Data volume, resource limitations, and skills gaps, as well as outdated organizational structures and technological advancements, present challenges for law enforcement in the prevention, investigation, analysis, and prosecution of cyber-enabled crimes.
  • Reforms to legal and policy frameworks for the digital context are underway around the world. While Canada can learn from foreign approaches, all orders of governments must consider the Canadian legal context when assessing the extent to which foreign approaches are appropriate in their jurisdiction.
  • Not all online harms meet the threshold of criminal behaviour. While legal reform may be necessary to address some online harms, in other cases, non-legal approaches will be more effective and responsive to victims’ and survivors’ preferences.
  • Privacy and human rights are often seen to be at odds with security in digital contexts, but these can be mutually reinforcing.
  • Early investments and interventions that consider human rights have allowed Canada to more effectively investigate and prosecute some cyber-enabled crimes.

Expert Panel

The Expert Panel on Public Safety in the Digital Age