Reviewing the Policy Suggestions by Mike Gifford (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Reviewing the Policy Suggestions by Mike Gifford (CC BY-NC 2.0)


Canada’s Surveillance Crisis Now Hiding In Plain Sight

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.

Within months, it became clear that Canadian securities agencies were enthusiastic participants in numerous surveillance initiatives. Canadians played a lead role in projects focused on tracking travellers using airport Wi-Fi networks, monitoring millions of daily uploads and downloads to online storage sites, aggregating millions of emails sent by Canadians to government officials, and targeting mobile phones and app stores to implant spyware.

Moreover, the U.S. collection and mining of “metadata” – the data about data that covers geographic information and details about social links – was also at the heart of Canadian activities with a ministerial authorization granting officials the power to capture the potentially sensitive personal information with minimal oversight.

While these programs attracted attention for a day or two, it was the Conservatives’ introduction of Bill C-51, the anti-terrorism legislation that granted the government a host of new powers, that finally succeeded in generating a sustained focus on Canadian surveillance law.

The bill became law with few amendments, but emerged as the public’s shorthand for the need for reforms to surveillance activities. Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale and the new Liberal government have promised changes, with expectations that they will focus initially on a new “super” oversight body for security agencies and later open the door to further amendments.

Yet despite assurances that improved oversight will provide adequate safeguards against intrusive surveillance, in recent months it has become apparent that weak oversight represents only a small part of the problem.

Consider this year’s report from the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) commissioner, who uses legal language to obscure an otherwise clear admission that there are ongoing metadata violations within the CSE. The report notes that metadata activities were “generally conducted in compliance with operational policy” and that the “CSE has halted some metadata analysis activities” that were the subject of previous criticisms.

The use of words like “generally” and “some” are no accident. The CSE Commissioner could have just as easily written that the CSE still does not conduct its metadata activities in full compliance with the law and that it has refused to stop some activities that were the subject of complaints. Yet the soft framing turns what should be a major story and source of concern into something largely ignored by the general public.

The same is true for a series of admissions related to “privacy breaches” at the CSE. In plain language, this suggests that Canadian security intelligence agencies revealed information to foreign agencies in a manner that violates the law. Indeed, reports indicate that this includes identifying information arising from phone calls and Internet usage.

These are not privacy breaches in the conventional sense of an inadvertent loss of information or a malicious hack into government systems. Those are privacy breaches largely beyond the control of the holder of the information. Rather, these are unlawful disclosures that run afoul of the law. In fact, rather than come clean about the violations, the CSE has refused to disclose the number of “privacy breaches” since 2007 and the government has said it cannot identify those affected.

Three years after Snowden thrust surveillance onto the public agenda, it is time for Canada to reshape how its securities agencies operate. The desperate need for a full airing of Canadian surveillance practices comes not from what was hidden for many years, but what has been happening in plain sight.


  1. Totally worth the time

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  3. My wife Ingrid Van Eyk just received RCMP documentation through the access to information act stating that the RCMP has been running counter intelligence operations against our family, my wife and 5 children for over 20 years. The documentation is mostly redacted and it is classified confidential and it is stamped NATIONAL SECURITY ENFORCEMENT RCMP COUNTER TERRORISM UNIT. I Michael Rodger Heroux applied for the same files but they would not give them to me. We are not terrorist and we never have been, my wife doesn’t even have a record and on the 17th of August they just came and took our 14 year old daughter away from us and said we were keeping her secluded in our house for too long. They have been using C-51 against us since they got it last year. We took the documentation to the Toronto Court House because they wanted to see them and the courts told us we have had our Human Rights majorly violated for over 20 years and they told us to find the best human rights lawyer we can find and Sue then.

  4. My wife and I were the ones who had the 30-08 warrants taken out on us in 2009. We contacted Ralph Goodale by mail in 2015 about being abused before he came into power and we contacted him again after he became public safety minister in the beginning of 2016 because we were being tortured again under the Trudeau government in Vancouver. We never heard back from him at all except for agents coming up to us on the streets of Vancouver and telling us to back off or we would be dead. We managed to finally leave BC but the NATIONAL SECURITY ENFORCEMENT COUNTER TERRORISM UNIT stopped us from leaving for over a month by taking away our Greyhound tickets and threatening to throw us in jail if we didn’t stay away from the GreyHound station. After a month they finally decided to let us leave BC and we made it to Edmonton Alberta where we were able to get some help from Rachel Notleys constituency to get to Toronto so we can find legal representation to sue them. We are in Toronto now. Thank God for Rachel Notley and her great people in Edmonton that helped us get to Toronto. We have just qualified for a Legal Aid Certificate and we are searching for the best Human Rights Lawyer we can find.