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.**
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.
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.
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