Madam Speaker, it is a pleasure to rise to speak to the third reading of Bill S-4, which would amend the Criminal Code to address the growing problem of identity theft. Bill S-4 has been reported back from the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights without amendment.
As the witnesses who testified before the committee agreed, this legislation is urgently needed. The new and constantly evolving technologies that dramatically improve our lives are being exploited by enterprising criminals.
Identity theft is growing, both in the number of incidents and in the amount of losses to consumers, retailers, service providers, financial institutions, and also governments.
However, as the witnesses and experts also made very clear, identity theft is not just about money. There is a great deal of fear among Canadians that their identities are being exploited and being abused by criminals. When identity information is used in the course of a fraud, a travel-related offence or another offence, the ramifications for the victim can be severe. Victims of identity theft suffer psychological harm and feelings of being violated. In extreme cases, Canadians can lose their life savings, and sometimes even their homes, or they can be left with a poor credit rating, based on the criminal acts of others.
Long after these victims spend their time and energy clearing their good names, there remain lingering feelings of vulnerability and loss of control over their lives and anxiety for years to come over whether the nightmare is even over. The fear of having their identities misused again at some unknown point in time in the future is a constant for these victims.
Police are increasingly seeing links between identity theft and organized crime, and even terrorism. Organized criminals use other people's identities to camouflage their own identities and to commit crimes to generate large profits. We are seeing identity information collected in one place and instantaneously shipped over the Internet to criminal gangs in other countries for manipulation. The criminals are getting ahead of us in their level of organization and sophistication.
RCMP witnesses who testified before the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights explained that the key components of Bill S-4 are new offences that would close legislative gaps. Right now, criminals can collect, possess and traffic in identity information for criminal purposes, but they may not be guilty of any crime. While the ultimate criminal or fraudulent use of other people's identities is clearly criminal under a variety of offences, such as fraud or personation, Bill S-4 would directly target the early phases of identity theft operations which today may fall through the legal cracks. The new offences contained in Bill S-4 would allow the police to take action and lay charges even before a fraud is committed or a person is impersonated or someone unlawfully crosses the border with phony documents.
As the RCMP witnesses testified before committee, Bill S-4 would bring our laws one step closer to protecting not only individual Canadians but also the integrity of the Canadian economy.
Other aspects of Bill S-4 would clarify and complement existing offences in the Criminal Code. For instance, in addition to existing offences regarding the protection of the mail and Canada Post operations, new offences would be added to address redirecting mail and stealing mail from a mailbox, both of which are known techniques used by identity thieves to gather information.
As I already mentioned, new offences concerning the collection and possession of identity information are included in the bill, as is the new offence of trafficking in identity information. The offence of personation already prohibits the fraudulent use of another person's identity, and this would now be renamed “identity fraud”.
The idea here is for the criminal law to clearly reflect the full sequence of identity crime activities. Identity theft, the collecting and possessing of identity information, is followed by trafficking in identity information, which is then followed by identity fraud, the actual fraudulent use of the identity information.
Bill S-4 would also extend the restitution provisions in the Criminal Code to help victims recover some of the costs they must bear to obtain new documents and otherwise rehabilitate their identities if they are victimized. This measure would, hopefully, go some way toward remedying the damage done to Canadians who struggle to cope with having lost control of their identities.
Other vital aspects of Bill S-4 are the narrowly tailored exemptions relating to the manufacture and use of false documents for use by undercover police officers. One exemption permits people who make false documents to be shielded from liability if they do so in good faith and at the request of a police agency or government department. The other exemption permits peace officers to make and use false identity documents without criminal liability solely where they do so for the purpose of maintaining a covert identity.
In the House, in committee and in the Senate some concerns were raised about the exemptions because they do not contain an oversight or accountability mechanism. The government considers it entirely appropriate to grant these exemptions as the making and use of false documents for covert investigations as fundamental to effective law enforcement. The exemptions are very narrow. They do not permit anyone to commit fraud, identity theft, impersonation or any offence outside of a few narrow forgery offences.
Peace officers can use false documents only for the purpose of maintaining their covert identity. They will fall outside the scope of the exemption if they use the forged documents for any other purpose. The government considers these exemptions to be close parallels to the exemption provided to police for the carrying of a firearm. There is no oversight required for each occasion on which a police officer carries his or her weapon. The law simply makes it clear that officers may carry firearms whenever they are on the job.
Similarly, requiring oversight for each instance in which an undercover agent makes or uses a false identity document to support his or her covert identity would be administratively burdensome, if not impossible. More important, as there is no conceivable harm that can come to Canadians by these limited exemptions, oversight would serve no conceivable useful purpose. The government is confident that the exemptions in Bill S-4 are both necessary and appropriate.
It bears mentioning that in the Senate the legal and constitutional affairs committee amended this bill to put in a five year review of the legislation. The government is pleased that the legislation will be reviewed so that parliamentarians can consider how effective the law has been at helping to reduce and prevent identity fraud. That evaluation will give us an opportunity to appreciate whether any additional amendments or any other improvements should be made to better protect Canadians from identity crime.
Bill S-4 would not immediately bring an end to identity crime. No piece of legislation alone would be capable of doing that. Still, Bill S-4 is a giant step forward and would provide law enforcement in this country with some tools that are currently missing from its toolbox. Witnesses have been clear that Bill S-4 is urgently needed.
As technology advances, so too must criminal law and the Criminal Code. I, therefore, encourage all hon. members to pass this legislation without further delay.