Columns Archive

Why Better Oversight Won’t Fix Internet Surveillance and the New Anti-Terrorism Bill

Appeared in the Toronto Star on February 7, 2015 as Mere Oversight Won’t Fix Tory Surveillance Bill

The past ten days have been a difficult time for Canadians concerned with privacy and civil liberties. Strike one came with new Edward Snowden revelations regarding Canada’s role in the daily tracking of the Internet activities of millions. Strike two was the introduction of Bill C-51, the anti-terrorism legislation, which sparked concern from observers across the country. Strike three came with the response to those developments, with the government dismissing oversight mechanisms as “red tape” and the opposition parties choosing to focus on process rather than substance.

The opposition parties’ decision to focus on oversight is unsurprising given the weakness of the current system and the absence of any meaningful reforms within the proposed legislation. Yet the problem with focusing chiefly on oversight and is that it leaves the substantive law (in the case of CSE Internet surveillance) or proposed law (as in the case of C-51) largely unaddressed. If Canada fails to examine the shortcomings within the current law or within Bill C-51, there is no amount of accountability, oversight, or review that will restore the harm to privacy and civil liberties.

For example, the latest Snowden leaks revealed that the CSE has gathered information on as many as 15 million uploads and downloads per day from a wide range of hosting sites. The goal is reputed to be to target terrorist propaganda and training materials and identify who is uploading or downloading the materials. The leaked information shows how once a downloader is identified, intelligence agencies use other databases (including databases on billions of website cookies) to track the specific individual and their Internet use within hours of identified download.

The program removes any doubt about Canada’s role in global Internet surveillance and highlights how seemingly all Internet activity is now tracked by signals intelligence agencies. They are able to track who visits various websites and what they do from the outside, confirming the existence of a massive surveillance architecture of global Internet traffic that improved oversight in Canada alone would do little to address.

Moreover, these programs point to the fundamental flaw in Canadian law, where Canadians are re-assured that CSE does not – in fact, it legally cannot – target Canadians. However, mass surveillance of a hundred million downloads every week by definition targets Canadians alongside Internet users from every corner of the globe.

The claims that Canadians are not specifically targeted by such programs is based on arbitrary distinctions in defining “targeting” that only succeed in demonstrating the weakness of Canadian law. Given what we now know, better oversight of CSE is needed, but so too is a better law governing CSE activities.

Similarly, Bill C-51 is a problem not only because it fails to address longstanding limitations in oversight and accountability over CSIS, but rather because there are substantive provisions that raise real privacy and civil liberties concerns.

For example, the new CSIS disruption warrants featured in the bill are remarkably broad, providing legal power to effectively ignore any law (domestic or otherwise) and do whatever is deemed necessary to counter activities that extend far beyond just terrorism. It shocks to see the government openly empowering CSIS to break the law with few limitations or restrictions.

There are many other provisions in the bill that require detailed study, among them the potential website takedowns, the criminalization provisions on promoting terrorism that will be surely challenged under the Charter, and the broad information sharing provisions that the government-appointed Privacy Commissioner of Canada has warned against.

The radical reform of CSIS, when viewed alongside the mass surveillance programs of CSE, point to the need for a careful, non-partisan review of the law. Canadians may have already struck out in the hope for such a review, however, with the opposition parties confining most of their criticism to oversight. There is still time to reconsider this position since addressing oversight is surely necessary, but even a cursory review of CSE activities and Bill C-51 confirms that it is by no means sufficient.

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can be reached at or online at


  1. All it is is a game, the political parties are playing games with Canadians lives. It’s true what the head of Canadian Intelligence said about Canadians when he said Canadians are stupid about their data but they are just too trusting of their government.

  2. Canadian Intelligence goes around murdering Canadians and they think, well, he was gay or well, he was a criminal he deserved it anyways but what about the innocent families like the Liknes family or the Heroux family for that matter. My 2 daughters who were murdered were innocent, they were in college and university and they were not criminals, they had their whole lives ahead of them. And what about my other 3 children being tortured by canadian intelligence for the last 5 years, they are the sweetest children ever, they don’t even think of breaking the law. And my wife has never broken the law in her life, she has no criminal record, she is the best mother ever. I haven’t been in trouble with the law for 15 years now and in the past when I was it was because of alcohol addiction. I am totally clean now. They just thought that we were an easy target for their 30-08 warrant fraud so they destroyed our family because they knew we couldn’t afford legal representation to defend ourselves.

  3. The Justice Department Of Canada won’t even give us our information they got on us. My family and I and our lawyers and their lawyers have had dealings with The Justice Department Of Canada since I was 9 years old and they say they have no information on us at all. I have delt with The Justice Department Of Canada for almost 40 years and they say they have no information on me at all. They have lied to us and they continue to ly to us, I guess they only give important people their information to look over but if you are poor you can’t get the information they are using to make their fradulent decisions about you. They send us documentation that states they have no information on us at all so how long are they going to stand behind that fradulent documentation they keep sending us?

  4. We have been dealing with the access to information for the province of BC now and the Justice Department Of BC is now refusing to give us our information also just like the federal government is. I have dealt with the federal justice department since the age of 9 and we just got another letter from them 2 days ago telling us they have no information on me and they said they already told us last year that they are not going to answer anymore of our access to information requests. They told us to get The Privacy Commission Of Canada to investigate them again. We did that last year numerous times and they refuse to help us. The BC justice department just told us the same thing a few days ago, to get the BC privacy commissioner to investigate why they won’t give us our information. I have a history with the BC justice department also.

    The Law Society Of BC last month tried to get their personal injury lawyer to get my wife and I to sign a waiver waiving The Justice Department of any wrong doing or harm they might of caused our family over the abuse we have suffered for the last 5 years, the waiver also stated we would not of been able to summons them to court for any harm they might of caused to us. We refused to sign it and we walk out of the Court house where we had our meeting and they are trying to say that they have no information on us. Follow the money.