Forget “Angry Birds” Where are the Angry Canadians?

Saturday’s headline in Canada’s “newspaper of record”, The Globe and Mail, was not “Harper government caught spying on Canadians” but “Rob Ford admits jaywalking ticket in Vancouver”.  Are you kidding me???

Let’s review the week, shall we?

It started with Edward Snowden revealing that American and British spy agencies target smartphone applications like Angry Birds to capture the user’s personal information including his age, gender, location and sexual orientation.  This information combined with the real time geo-tracking function made “leaky apps” irresistible to spy agencies.

Do terrorists play Angry Birds?  Aren’t they mucking around with the real thing?  

Then came Snowden’s Canadian bombshell.  Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) captured the information of thousands of airline passengers while they waited in an airport lounge and tracked them for days as they popped up on Wi-Fi “hot spots” located in other airports, hotels, coffee shops, restaurants, libraries, and bus and train stations.

Apparently CSEC was testing a new software program it developed with its American partner, the NSA.  The passenger tracking technology is brilliant and will be shared with “Five Eyes”—a consortium made up of Canada, the US, Britain, New Zealand and Australia.

Ontario’s privacy commissioner, Ann Cavoukian, was “blown away” by the news:  “It is really unbelievable that CSEC would engage in that kind of surveillance of Canadians.  This resembles the activities of a totalitarian state, not a free and open society.”*  NO KIDDING!!!

What the heck is CSEC?

CSEC is Canada’s “signals-intelligence” agency.  It operates beyond Canada’s borders.  It is not to be confused with CSIS, Canada’s “human intelligence” agency, which operates at home, creating reports about security threats to Canada.**

Inside “Camelot”

In other words, CSEC is to CSIS what MI-6 is to MI-5…but with a less glamorous name.

CSEC’s star has been rising since 9/11.  Its budget escalated from $180 million in 1999 to $535 million today.  Its staff mushroomed from 900 to 2,124.  CSEC will soon be moving into its new headquarters, a $1 billion building known as “Camelot”.

Oh and for the record, CSEC Chief John Forster says CSEC doesn’t “target” Canadians at home or abroad.  In fact it doesn’t “target” anyone in Canada.  That would be illegal.  Mr Forster says “Protecting the privacy of Canadians is our most important principle”***

Don’t get your knickers in a knot

Our prime minister hasn’t responded to Snowden’s latest revelation, but CSEC has been getting its share of air time in the last four months.

Last October the PM reacted to allegations that Canada spied on Brazil by stating (1) he could not possibly comment on matters of national security (Brazil’s?) and (2) the Commissioner of CSEC conducts “…surveillance and audits that organization to make sure it’s operating within Canadian law.”****

In November Defence Minister Nicholson referred to the elusive CSEC Commissioner in response to Thomas Mulcair’s question about reports that the US spied on officials attending the 2010 G20 summit in Toronto.  Mr Nicholson said CSEC’s independent commissioner confirmed that CSEC complied with all applicable laws for the last 16 years.

Who is this independent CSEC commissioner in whom we’re supposed to place our trust?

The CSEC Commissioner

Canada is the only country in Five Eyes that does NOT have a watchdog committee overseeing its surveillance activities.  British surveillance activities are governed by nine parliamentarians.  US surveillance is reviewed by select committees of the House and the Senate as well as a foreign surveillance court—and we all know how well that’s working.

Mr Jean-Pierre Plouffe

Things are much simpler in Canada.

CSEC’s activities are reviewed by Jean-Pierre Plouffe.  Mr Plouffe is a retired judge.  He and his small staff report directly to the Minister of National Defence.  He says the leaks about Five Eyes have been taken out of context.

This may reassure Mr Harper and Mr Nicholson, but it does not satisfy Ann Cavoukian, the Ontario Privacy Commissioner, who says a man who reports directly to the agency he’s expected to criticize is hardly independent.

What’s the big deal, really?

Canadians are surprisingly unconcerned about Snowden’s revelation that their own government is spying on them.  This mirrors the “ho-hum” reaction such news elicited in the US where 40% of Americans continue to support NSA’s surveillance activities.***** 

The reasons for this ambivalence include:

  • Your privacy is compromised the minute you sign on to the internet.  This argument misses the critical distinction between being inundated by ads for the best blues bar in town and allowing the Department of Justice to create a file on you based on your internet behavior. The former is a marketing activity; the latter could land you in jail.
  • If you’re not doing anything illegal you have nothing to worry about.  This is naive.  It presumes that CSEC and everyone working there always act in accordance with the law.  It also forces you to forfeit your Charter rights.
  • Giving up your privacy is a small price to pay to be safe from terrorism.  Ontario Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian calls this utter nonsense, a myth created by those who want a world in which the government has information about everybody.  Ms Cavoukian is very clear.  Without privacy there is no freedom.

Mr Harper

In fact the real issue is this: Mr Harper is single-handedly easing Canadians into the brave new world—with absolutely no parliamentary oversight whatsoever. 

So…what do we do about it?

The opposition parties will press this issue with the government next week.  This is the perfect time to send letters to the Liberals (Justin Trudeau and Wayne Easter) and the NDP (Thomas Mulcair and Charmaine Borg, digital issues critic) supporting their demand for answers and a committee of parliamentarians to oversee CSEC’s activities.  Send copies to Prime Minister and Defence Minister Nicholson so they know Canadians are outraged by their abuse of our civil liberties.

Just because you leave a digital trail doesn’t give the government the automatic right to follow it.    

*National Post Online, Jan 27, 2014

**Globe&Mail Online, Nov 30, 2013

***RussiaToday Online, Jan 31, 2014

****Globe&Mail Online video, Oct 8, 2013

*****The Economist, Jan 25,2014, p23 

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23 Responses to Forget “Angry Birds” Where are the Angry Canadians?

  1. Rose Marie MacKenzie-Kirkwood says:

    I purchased a new exercise bike this weekend and as usual looked at the warranty info. It is amazing how, now a days, a form that says “fill this out and send it in to register your product” sets off a whole new bunch of alarms.

    It used to mean assurance that I would get help if my product broke, now first thing I think of is, do I want to fill this out and send this off to these people who will probably send/sell or give it away to anyone who asks. What do I risk, my privacy or the possibility that if my bike breaks I don’t get help.

    • Rose Marie: Sadly, this is exactly the kind of thing all of us should be worried about. The Financial Post carried an article this weekend about Toronto’s trendy Queen Street West shopping area where retailers are installing sensors to gather customers’ location data from their smartphones (apparently they’re busy pinging to other machines all the time). The shop owners want to know how long you stand in front of their windows, whether you shop in health food stores, where you get your coffee, etc. The business owners recognize that some of their customers may not take kindly to this covert data scoop so they’re going to put up signs to let their customers know that the data is being collected. That’s more than anyone can say for CSEC!

  2. carlosbeca says:

    Susan I have no doubts that Harper has a big hand in this and like you said, he is definitely easing Canadians into the new world. He has done that with the economy and with the rest of their fascist agenda and this is the last straw. He does not care whether or not he is on the way down in popularity because his purpose is not to govern, it is to make sure that when he leaves and goes back to real money, he not only has lots of it but leaves the country in an almost irreversible situation and in the hands of the corporate world and the super rich. They will take care of him I am sure.
    My biggest concern is that the concept of freedom has changed considerably as a result of the creation of extreme social media. Facebook, Google + …etc is now used by millions and especially young people that do not have the experience to realize what is going on. People expose themselves in these groups to unimaginable levels just a decade ago. So CSEC and other organizations are in paradise. They can do whatever they wish and Google and Apple and Microsoft may say whatever they want but they are providing what it is requested of them.
    Your comment about the ‘Globe and Mail’ headline being Rob Ford instead of this very important issue says it all and it is not surprising. They are in the same dirty hands.

    • Carlos, great point about social media changing the concept of privacy. Young people are blissfully unaware that the government, potential employers, etc can and will check out their social media activity and they need to use some discretion.

      But here’s what’s really troubling. The government can make life miserable for people expressing legitimate opinions if they think that person will make them look bad. Dr Cindy Blackstock, a member of the Gitksan Nation and a First Nations advocate, was targeted by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and the Department of Justice. They monitored social media sites and feeds linked to her including Twitter, YouTube, BlogSpot, Google Alerts and three Facebook accounts. They went beyond their governmental “needs” into her personal information. She complained to the Privacy Commissioner who told the government to stop. The government wasn’t happy about that and took retaliatory action. For example she was barred from a chiefs’ meeting with Chuck Strahl’s staff. They stuck her in the waiting room and posted a guard to stand over her while she read the newspaper (!!).

      As of July 2013 the government refused to confirm that it’s abiding with the Privacy Commissioner’s directive. Dr Blackstock filed a complaint against the government at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. She said that the government filed four federal court challenges to block her and failed. She says “This should scare everyone. This is about the government of Canada.” Here’s the link: http://aptn.ca/news/2013/07/08/cindy-blackstock-gets-ready-to-take-on-the-government-again-i-just-want-them-to-stop

      It is indeed about the government of Canada and the buck stops with Prime Minister Harper. Unfortunately he’s busy beefing up CSEC and shutting down research, muzzling scientists, wiping out the long form census, cutting support to veterans and so on. I sincerely hope the opposition parties are successful in giving this issue the attention it deserves.

  3. david swann says:

    As always, Susan, an enlightening read that makes the link to our citizenship rights and responsibilities. So glad your follow-up highlighted First Nation professional Dr Cindy Blackstock in her battle for aboriginal and minority rights.
    I will post this segment on my website “Politics Sucks” to highlight the abuse of power by elected officials including Stephen Harper. And of course your excellent reminder that when I am silent I am complicit in such abuses. I will add to the political will in a letter and speak out to challenge this unacceptable government.

    • David, the CSEC chief, John Forster said that it’s essential for CSEC to collect metadata, but that the agency doesn’t use it to build profiles on Canadians and that its staff would report CSEC to the CSEC commissioner (who works for the defence minister) if it started tracking Canadians.

      This statement rings hollow considering the lengths to which the departments of Justice and Aboriginal Affairs when in trying to neutralize Dr Blackstock. She indicated that they even checked her Indian Status Registry. She asked, why would they do that? Likely to discredit her.

      Anytime a government has the opportunity to conduct surveillance on its people, the people have the right to demand appropriate oversight. That’s certainly not the case here.

  4. Andrea Bosse says:

    Great post Susan. I, for one, plan to send my MP a message to make clear to her what I think about the government spying on Canadians, and I urge everyone to do the same. If we don’t start speaking up now, before we know it we will have lost not only our privacy but many of the other rights and freedoms that we take for granted.

    • Thanks Andrea. John Forster, head of CSEC, told the Senate national defence committee that the CSEC capture of metadata (data about data) didn’t run in real-time and wasn’t an actual operation, but the real issue here is the utter lack of parliamentary oversight over CSEC’s activities, everything from an out of control budget to an out of control spying operation. The former head of CSEC said his agency is on a par with NSA and should be be funded accordingly. Well if we want to play with the big boys then we’d better be held to the same standard of accountability. The British and the US require multi-party oversight of their agencies activities; what’s Harper’s rationale for anything less than that here?

  5. Wendy A. says:

    What started out as a brave new world with an explosion of new digital and communications technologies in the early 1990s seems to have become anything but.

    Many of the technologies we now rely upon (cell phones, the Internet, microchips that can store vast amounts of data, social media sites) and thought would give us more freedom and provide new opportunities and increased efficiency are turning out to have a dark side and the opposite effect.
    Our gadgets have become the invisible paparazzi in our lives- affecting our access to jobs, credit and insurance, our civil liberties and even the price we pay for things, all without our knowledge or understanding of how or why. Many of these same technologies are now being used by organized crime, corporations, governments, and policing authorities to consolidate power as never before.
    We’ve become vulnerable to new kinds of crime and less free and less equal.
    For example, there is a growing consumer “caste system” in the marketplace with corporations sorting us all into high value customers and low value customers thanks to new information technologies. High value customers obtain high quality service, special pricing benefits, and regular communication; low value customers are left with low quality service, phone trees in Virginia and pay more. Governments are also busy sorting us into high value and low value citizens.

    Re: You think you’ve got nothing to hide. As well as the example Susan provided, recall the recent story of a woman being stopped from entering the US because of long-past history of a suicide attempt. Microsoft is developing technology it says can detect whether or not a person is depressed and suicidal by analyzing their twitter feeds. I wonder who they are going to sell that surveillance technology to.
    We are now at the point where 1984-like “smart” technologies are looking back at us instead of just us looking at them – a situation that doesn’t inspire trusting relationships or cooperation in society.

    That’s the bad news.
    The good news is that I actually feel a little hopeful for the first time in many years. Why?
    Because I am now seeing pockets of expertise in law, technology, civil liberties and the marketplace from across the country working together as never before to bring these high stakes issues into public view and help us all understand what’s happening and how we might fix some things.
    Closer to home, a Calgary lawyer by the name of Susan Wright decided a few years ago to bring her passion for a better world and her commitment to learning and democratic discussion out in the public realm in a compelling blog that unpacks complex issues. She has even managed to drag some of the hidden passion for fairness and justice in the law community out of the woodwork.

    We may not have a gem like the BC Civil Liberties Association, a Privacy Commissioner who will or can speak out like Ann Cavoukian in Ontario, or an organization like the University of Ottawa’s CIPPIC (Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic). But we do have a lot of hidden expertise, a growing number of citizens who care – and Susan and her Soapbox.

    So, instead of throwing away our cell phones, I’d suggest buying a book called Black Code: Surveillance, Privacy and the Dark Side of the Internet by Ronald Deibert- from the Munk School of Global Studies in Toronto ($19.95) It explains in a totally understandable way what is hidden from average Internet users as well as how and why “we are actively discouraged, by law and the companies involved, from developing a curiosity about and knowledge of the inner workings of cyberspace”.

    Or take a quick look around this website http://realprivacy.ca/ and get a little angrier.

    • Wendy, you’re right, most of us are out here in the ether with no idea what’s going on behind our computer screens. When someone tries to explain it to us we quickly become mired in technospeak and lose interest. But we need to become better informed so thank you for passing along the Black Code recommendation. We also need to keep up the pressure on our government to ensure that they know that privacy matters to Canadians.
      I am utterly mystified by the suggestion that giving up our privacy in order to protect ourselves from terrorists is OK and a little warrantless (ie. illegal) spying on our activities in a Wi-Fi café is a fair trade off. Perhaps it’s because we’re talking about new technology; maybe people need to understand that it’s the same as the government installing a snooping device on your TV that allowed CSEC to monitor you and your family every time you turn it on. Surely the public wouldn’t be complacent then.
      PS Thanks also for your kind comments about the Soapbox and your informative responses.

  6. carlosbeca says:

    While we are discussing our lack of privacy another scandal this time of our own premier of Alberta. Another trip for 4 days that costs us 44 thousand dollars. The reasons for this waste of course gained her the title of princess of Alberta in the Sun this morning. I would venture more of a lobotomized empress. This is ridiculous and I will make sure this time that this is circulated as much as possible so that she does not hide again as usual.
    This is the state of our so called democracy. The premier of Nova Scotia makes the same trip for a mere 1 thousand dollars.
    Shame on these people and welcome revolution.
    Read the news and pass it along to anyone possible. Lets make her pay for her behaviour.This has to stop. This is our money and this is our province, not Alison Redford’s or her corporate supporters.
    Yes I am an angry bird.

    • Carlos: The $44,000 trip is yet another example of the PCs viewing themselves as special. Their immediate needs, no matter how wasteful come first and must be satisfied. It simply wasn’t convenient for Redford to re-schedule the swearing-in ceremony of her new cabinet ministers. (The world would have come to a grinding halt if Doug Griffiths hadn’t assumed his new duties as Minister reponsible for paper clips). Don Braid, Herald columnist says Redford’s government is buying itself a spendthrift reputation. He’s wrong. A “spendthrift” spends money in a wasteful and careless manner. That definition fits silly teenagers who blow their allowance on gadgets. Redford’s government’s wasteful behavior goes goes much deeper than that. The PCs believe that they’re entitled to spend tax dollars anyway they see fit simply because they’re worth it. High spending business executives who don’t deliver results are replaced. Albertans have the same remedy–jettison the PCs in 2016. They’ve outworn their welcome.
      PS I’m glad you’re an angry bird! We need more of them!

      • carlosbeca says:

        I am just elated that this issue is causing an uproar. I have contributed to it and I will continue until this blows big time on her face. It is enough. We are all citizens and this is outrageous and sick. If you can and agree, write a message to her constituency and tell your friends. We can make this the issue that kicks her out of there. Enough of using our money for vacations and self aggrandizing.

      • Excellent suggestion Carlos. Everyone is talking about Redford swanning all over the world at the taxpayer’s expense (and by everyone, I mean everyone, my 80-something mother who lives in BC was talking to me about it just 30 minutes ago). I’d suggest we send Redford an outraged email with copies to Doug Horner and Dave Hancock, the party power brokers. That will get the party’s attention.
        BTW I’m really enjoying the dialogue you and David are having on other issues, keep it going!

      • carlosbeca says:

        Susan if you are going to write another letter please count me in. I know you can write a way more powerful letter than I can.
        Thank you for allowing the discussion.

      • Thanks Carlos. Will do.

  7. David Grant says:

    Well done Carlos for focusing on the corruption issue in this province. I am always surprised that people in this province as always quick to point to corruption in Ottawa or other provinces but some how our province is pure and clean. I would to Carlos point that the next time someone mentions the corruption is bad in say Quebec as revealed by Charbonneau, they should mention the fact one of this government’s funder is a man who exploited the Monterey home care workers by taking 30% of the money he was given by Alberta Health Services to pay the workers for himself. This was only remedied by an active campaign by AUPE(full disclosure I am a member of local 52)and a fair contract was negotiated. To turn to the issue at hand, Susan is right about the lack of outrage. I think Canadians like American friends have become somewhat deferential to giving up their privacy for a little security after 9/11. What it will take to change is when this information is used by a government or private entity for a nefarious purpose and then it will hit home.

  8. carlosbeca says:

    David I could not agree more. The Monterey case and others is just showing us that we are not any different than anybody else. Unfortunately, the fact that we have become rich and organized country due to the wisdom and patriotism of past leaders is making us careless, greedy and moving in the wrong direction. I have to say that Unions have also contributed to this situation with unreal demands in the past but the province would have been a disaster without them. They need to adjust to different times and just like the rest of us start thinking more about a sustainable fairer future rather than just owning everything our pampered brains want.

    • David Grant says:

      I would disagree with you Carlos in saying that unions have become made the situation worse. When I think of the last few contracts, we either a very small increase 3% or no increase at all. The increases we did get in the boom didn’t match the huge cost of living increase. You maybe right about other unions, perhaps Quebec, but I don’t think that is applies to the situation, in my humble opinion or not so humble opinion. The power of unions in this province is quite laughable. Unions don’t have the right to strike and now with Bills 45 and 46, the right to collective bargaining has been taken away.

  9. Carlos Beca says:

    David you misinterpreted me a bit. I am not the greatest writer but I was careful and I think it is clear. If you read it again I said – Unions have contributed to this situation with unreal demands in the past ‘ and then I said and I truly believe this – ‘…the province without them would have been a disaster….’. Unions have made, without a doubt, our entire world a better place for most of us. I was not referring at all to any province or any location specifically. I am talking about Unions in general. You are very right that the unions in Alberta are weak and the way of the dodo and that is because of what I said above. In the 80 and 90s the Unions behaved like cash machines and did little or nothing for the benefit of all workers but the ones they served. This weakened them profoundly in the eyes of those who have no protection or professionals. The aim was more and more without limits. This is true and I do not care what union members say. I witnessed this. I have been around a long time to know what I am talking about. After that period, the corporations used their money and power and the fact that the unions were on the bad side of the population and hammered them and in the process, the rest of us to where we are now.
    This is why I say the unions contributed to the present situation. I am not disputing they did not deserve the money they were asking for, but the way it was done did not go well with most people. Now we have the opposite situation going on and it is 10 times worse and this time by the corporations and elites. This is going to blow big time in their faces and it is already on. Unfortunately these cycles take too long.

    The unions are weak, the corporations are socially discredited and this is the correct time to reinforce our democracy so these situations do not repeat, at least for a long time. Proportional representation is to me the very first step. I want my vote to count and be represented in the legislature. I want the lobbyists out of there unless we also have the same access. I want the budgets to be confirmed by outside sources. I want the end of freedom of information act. Unless it is an exceptional situation, everything the government does is public knowledge. The government is us and I want to know what they are doing on my behalf. These are a good start.

  10. Pingback: The Day We Fight Back | INF 2305: Communication and Social Change

  11. David Grant says:

    Well, Carlos it would be a big surprise to living here in Alberta during that time(I was here but I was in school). It is true that the unions in Ontario during the 1990s did ask for a lot of things that would have been reasonable during good times, but not during a recession. I am not sure the same can be said of the Alberta unions. A lot of them actually for the PCs and supported the wage cut(I know this from talking to union members who were there at the time). I think the case you are presenting is still very hard for me to believe. Having said that, I do agree with you when it comes to proportional representation and transparency. I am not sure how to get there, but those are good first steps.

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