The Road Not Taken: Missing Powers to Compel Decryption in Bill C-59, Ticking Bombs, and the Future of the Encryption Debate


  • Robert Diab



In the fall of 2016, Canada’s Liberal government published a Green Paper canvassing public opinion on changes to national security law. The Paper explored the possibility of new powers to compel third parties to assist with decryption, framing the discussion around a terrorism plot analogous to a ticking bomb hypothetical. The public did not support new decryption powers, and Bill C-59, now before Parliament, does not include them. This article revisits the Green Paper to shed light on deeper fault lines in debates about whether police should have a power to compel decryption. The Green Paper points to illuminating parallels between arguments for compelled decryption and for torture. The strongest arguments for each make use of ticking bomb scenarios. While the arguments have attracted much criticism, they remain plausible and undermine key assumptions of those opposed to compelled decryption.

Part II of this article traces two common arguments for why state agents seek powers to compel a third party to decrypt: for justice (to secure convictions) and public safety (to prevent terrorism and other serious offences). Opponents cast doubt on the first claim by pointing to many alternative sources of evidence. They tend to dismiss the second claim, that police need decryption powers for public safety, as merely theoretical, but fail to engage its merits. Part III takes a closer look at the public safety claim in light of the torture debate and the ticking bomb scenario. Despite criticism, arguments in favour of compelled decryption based on the scenario remain theoretically plausible on consequentialist grounds, and rhetorically persuasive by aligning the need for compelled decryption with the value of life (over dignity or privacy). The public safety claim also challenges a common view among opponents of compelled decryption that such powers do not involve a trade-off between privacy and security but between two forms of security. The article concludes by considering the possible impact on the debate of a terrorist act implicating encryption.






Forum: Bill C-59, An Act Respecting National Security Matters