Do Canadians Care About Mass Online Surveillance?

By Duncan Pike, M.A. Candidate at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.

This January 28th is Data Privacy Day, a date marked around the world in support of data privacy and individual control of personal digital information. This year marks the eighth such holiday and the first since whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked a cache of classified documents, revealing the hither-to unknown surveillance capabilities and vast digital reach of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA).

Since then the tensions and trade-offs between security, online privacy and digital rights have been a continuous part of the national conversation in the United States. Congressional leaders, intelligence officials, civil society groups, and journalists have been engaged in a sustained debate over the necessity, legality and utility of mass surveillance programs. Two competing bills responding to the revelations are before the U.S. Congress, government oversight boards have completed major reviews of the programs, and on January 17 President Obama, in what was billed as a “major speech”, announced modest changes to activities the NSA undertakes

Snowden has said his main aim was to “trigger [a debate] among citizens around the globe about what kind of world we want to live in.” By this measure he has unequivocally succeeded, at least in the United States. Rather less conspicuous has been the corresponding debate in Canada.

It is still unclear the extent to which CSEC, the Canadian agency devoted to signals intelligence, is engaged in similar forms of surveillance, but I think there are strong reasons to think that it is also in the business of suspicionlesss bulk data collection. Canadian law contains provisions analogous to those found in the US Patriot Act that purportedly authorize the NSA programs. Canada is a member of the ‘Five Eyes’ agreement between the Anglosphere nations to monitor worldwide communications and share signals intelligence. CSEC has cooperated closely with the NSA in the past to spy on the G8 and G20 summits in Toronto in 2010, and is known to have its own meta-data surveillance program, the details of which remain largely hidden from the public.

The seeming lack of interest from Canadians and the Canadian mainstream media cannot, then, be explained because Canada is somehow insulated from the consequences of NSA spying, or because our own intelligence agencies have no similar programs. Jesse Brown, formerly a tech reporter with Maclean’s, was one of the few journalists to regularly cover the NSA story and its implications for Canadians. In his final post for Maclean’s he noted that privacy was his least popular topic with readers, and that stories about CSEC in particular “performed terribly.” Polls done after the Snowden leaks show an even split over the acceptability of government spying on citizens, a result called “surprisingly apathetic” by Byron Holland, president of the Canadian Internet Registration Authority.

The only  piece of legislation to be put forward in Parliament dealing with privacy, Bill C-13, would provide immunity to telecoms disclosing personal information, and lowers the criteria for judges to issue a warrant for metadata collection. The Canadian government is, it seems, not feeling any pressure to restrain mass surveillance operations, this despite the fact that CSEC currently operates with “substantially less” oversight than the NSA, according to digital-security expert Ron Deibert. While the NSA must appear before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court before it conducts surveillance on American citizens, CSEC must simply ask the Minister of National Defence to conduct surveillance on Canadian citizens.

Such pushback as exists has come mostly from academia and civil society groups, such as Deibert’s Citizen Lab, CIPPIC at the University of Ottawa, and, a digital-rights pressure group. In October 2013 the BC Civil Liberties Association filed a lawsuit against CSEC, claiming its surveillance of Canadians is unconstitutional and calling on the government to bring further transparency to its online intelligence operations. With so many seemingly unfazed by the idea of pervasive government surveillance, no clarity from telecoms about what information they provide intelligence agencies, and a government entirely uninterested in disclosing what data it is collecting on its own citizens, it may take a lawsuit, or some further bombshell revelations, before Canadians decide that this is an issue to which it is worth paying attention.

Photo by Steve Rhodes via Flickr.


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