Four years ago, Edward Snowden shocked the world with a series of surveillance disclosures that forced many to rethink basic assumptions about the privacy of online activities in light of NSA actions. In the years that have followed, we have learned much more about the role of other countries – including Canada – in similar activities (often in partnership with the NSA). The legality and oversight over these cyber-related programs fell into a murky area, with legal challenges over metadata programs, court decisions that questioned whether Canadian agencies were offside the law, the hurriedly drafted Bill C-51 that sparked widespread criticism, and concern over the oversight and review process that many viewed as inadequate.
Yesterday, the Liberal government unveiled Bill C-59, the first genuine attempt to overhaul Canadian surveillance and security law in decades. The bill is large and complicated, requiring months of study to fully assess its implications (reactions from Forcese/Roach, BCCLA, CBC, Wark, Amnesty). At first glance, however, it addresses some of the core criticisms of the Conservatives’ Bill C-51 and a legal framework that had struggled to keep pace with emerging technologies. Leading the way is an oversight super-structure that replaces the previous silo approach that often left commissioners with inadequate resources and legal powers. The government has promised to spend millions of dollars to give the new oversight structure the resources it needs alongside legal powers that grant better and more effective review of Canadian activities.
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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.
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As a lifelong Seattle Seahawks fan, this past Sunday’s Super Bowl – with the Hawks a yard away from winning their second straight championship only to give up a late interception – felt like a punch in the gut. Nearly two days later, I’m still trying to catch my breath. The end to Super Bowl 49 was the actually second time in the week that I was left feeling shocked and speechless. Throughout the week, the combination of Snowden revelations regarding Canada’s role in the daily tracking the Internet activities of millions and the introduction of Bill C-51, the anti-terrorism legislation, left me similarly grappling to make sense of the swirling developments.
It would appear that the immediate response from many, particularly the opposition parties, has centered on the need for improved accountability and oversight. There is no doubt that the failure to address Canada’s weak oversight system of surveillance and intelligence activities is a major flaw (particularly since oversight was actually reduced in 2012). For a government that introduced the Federal Accountability Act as its very first piece of legislation (and supported more oversight when in opposition) to now dismiss oversight as “red tape” is simply shameful. Better oversight and accountability should be a proverbial “no-brainer”: it bolsters public confidence and, as demonstrated elsewhere, need not undermine security-related operations.
Yet the problem with oversight and accountability as the primary focus 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 we fail to examine the shortcomings within the current law or within Bill C-51, no amount of accountability, oversight, or review will restore the loss of privacy and civil liberties.
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The government yesterday introduced Bill C-44, the Protection of Canada from Terrorists Act. While some were expecting significant new surveillance, decreased warrant thresholds, and detention measures, this bill is a response to several court decisions, not to the attacks last week in Ottawa and Quebec. A second bill – which might use the U.K. legislative response to terror attacks as a model – is a future possibility, but policy decisions, cabinet approval, legal drafting, and constitutional reviews take time.
Bill C-44, which was to have been tabled on the day of the Ottawa attack, responds to two key issues involving CSIS, Canada’s domestic intelligence agency. The first involves a federal court case from late last year in which Justice Richard Mosley, a federal court judge, issued a stinging rebuke to Canada’s intelligence agencies (CSEC and CSIS) and the Justice Department, ruling that they misled the court when they applied for warrants to permit the interception of electronic communications. Mosley’s concern stemmed from warrants involving two individuals that were issued in 2009 permitting the interception of communications both in Canada and abroad using Canadian equipment. At the time, the Canadian intelligence agencies did not disclose that they might ask their foreign counterparts (namely the “five eyes” partners in the U.S., U.K., Australia, and New Zealand) to intercept the foreign communications.
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Months of surveillance-related leaks from U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden have fuelled an international debate over privacy, spying, and Internet surveillance. The Canadian-related leaks – including disclosures regarding spying on the Brazilian government and the facilitation of spying at the G8 and G20 meetings hosted in Toronto in 2010 – have certainly inspired some domestic discussion. Ironically, the most important surveillance development did not involve Snowden at all.
My weekly technology column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes that late last year, Justice Richard Mosley, a federal court judge, issued a stinging rebuke to Canada’s intelligence agencies (CSEC and CSIS) and the Justice Department, ruling that they misled the court when they applied for warrants to permit the interception of electronic communications. While the government has steadfastly defended its surveillance activities by maintaining that it operates within the law, Justice Mosley, a former official with the Justice Department who was involved with the creation of the Anti-Terrorism Act, found a particularly troubling example where this was not the case.
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