Surveillance: America's Pastime by Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: naixn, Jason Smith / feastoffun.com) (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
In the aftermath of the Snowden revelations in which the public has become largely numb to new surveillance disclosures, the Canadian reports over the past week will still leave many shocked and appalled. It started with the Ontario Provincial Police mass text messaging thousands of people based on cellphone usage from nearly a year earlier (which is not government surveillance per se but highlights massive geo-location data collection by telecom carriers and extraordinary data retention periods), continued with the deeply disturbing reports of surveillance of journalists in Quebec (which few believe is limited to just Quebec) and culminated in yesterday’s federal court decision that disclosed that CSIS no longer needs warrants for tax records (due to Bill C-51) and took the service to task for misleading the court and violating the law for years on its metadata collection and retention program.
The ruling reveals a level of deception that should eliminate any doubts that the current oversight framework is wholly inadequate and raises questions about Canadian authorities commitment to operating within the law. The court found a breach of a “duty of candour” (which most people would typically call deception or lying) and raises the possibility of a future contempt of court proceeding. While CSIS attempted to downplay the concern by noting that the data collection in question – metadata involving a wide range of information used in a massive data analysis program – was collected under a court order, simply put, the court found that the retention of the data was illegal. Further, the amount of data collection continues to grow (the court states the “scope and volume of incidentally gathered information has been tremendously enlarged”), leading to the retention of metadata that is not part of an active investigation but rather involves non-threat, third party information. In other words, it is precisely the massive, big data metadata analysis program feared by many Canadians.
Three years ago this month, Edward Snowden shocked the world with a series of disclosures that revealed a myriad of U.S. government-backed surveillance programs. The Snowden revelations sparked a global debate over how to best strike the balance between privacy and security and led to demands for greater telecom transparency.
My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes that the initial Canadian response to the surveillance debate was muted at best. Many Canadians assumed that the Snowden disclosures were largely about U.S. activities. That raised concerns about Canadian data being caught within the U.S. surveillance dragnet, but it did not necessarily implicate the Canadian government in the activities.
As the world grapples with the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, the policy implications for issues such as the acceptance of refugees and continued military participation in the fight against ISIL have unsurprisingly come to the fore. The attacks have also escalated calls to reconsider plans to reform Canadian privacy and surveillance law, a key election promise from the Trudeau government.
My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) argues that despite the temptation to slow the re-examination of Canadian privacy and surveillance policy, the government should stay the course. The Liberals voted for Bill C-51, the controversial anti-terror law, during the last Parliament, but promised changes to it if elected. Even in the face of a renewed terror threat, those changes remain essential and should not have an adverse impact on operational efforts to combat terror threats that might surface in Canada.
The trial of Senator Mike Duffy featured several notable revelations last week about the inner workings of the Prime Minister’s Office. One of the most important was found in a 2013 memo written by former chief of staff Nigel Wright that focuses on the control exerted by the PMO over the Senate. While the Senate is nominally an independent body of “sober second thought”, the memo highlights how the PMO expects Senate leadership to follow directions from the Prime Minister and to avoid developing policy positions without advance consultations and approval.
For anyone who has followed Senate committee reviews of legislative proposals, the Wright memo is not particularly surprising. This past spring, a Senate committee review of Bill C-51, the controversial anti-terrorism legislation, heard from experts such as the Privacy Commissioner of Canada about much-needed reforms. Yet once it was time to vote, the committee left the bill unchanged, lending an air of theatre to the entire process.
My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes that assuming that policy control over Senate committee remains a priority, a recent batch of Senate reports provides new insights into future Conservative policies. Weeks before the election call, Senate committees began releasing long-awaited reports on a wide range of issues including national security, digital commerce, and the future of the CBC. In fact, more Senate committee reports were released in June and July (15 in total) than in the previous 18 months combined.
Edward Snowden burst into the public consciousness in June 2013 with a series of astonishing revelations about U.S. surveillance activities. Snowden’s primary focus has centered on the U.S., however the steady stream of documents have laid bare the notable role of allied surveillance agencies, including the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), Canada’s signals intelligence agency. The Canadian-related leaks – including disclosures regarding surveillance over millions of Internet downloads, airport wireless networks, spying on the Brazilian government, and the facilitation of spying at the G8 and G20 meetings hosted in Toronto in 2010 – have unsurprisingly inspired some domestic discussion and increased media coverage on privacy and surveillance issues. Yet despite increased public and media attention, the Snowden leaks have thus far failed to generate sustained political debate in Canada.
I am delighted to report that this week the University of Ottawa Press published Law, Privacy and Surveillance in Canada in the Post-Snowden Era, an effort by some of Canada’s leading privacy, security, and surveillance scholars to provide a Canadian-centric perspective on the issues. The book is available for purchase and is also available in its entirety as a free download under a Creative Commons licence. This book is part of the UOP’s collection on law, technology and media (I am pleased to serve as the collection editor) that also includes my earlier collection on the Copyright Pentalogy and a new book from my colleagues Jane Bailey and Valerie Steeves titled eGirls, eCitizens. All books in the collection are available as open access PDF downloads.