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.
Another week, another revelation originating from the seemingly unlimited trove of Edward Snowden documents. Last week, the CBC reported that Canada was among several countries whose surveillance agencies actively exploited security vulnerabilities in a popular mobile web browser used by hundreds of millions of people. Rather than alerting the company and the public that the software was leaking personal information, they viewed the security gaps as a surveillance opportunity.
My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes that in the days before Snowden, these reports would have sparked a huge uproar. More than half a billion people around the world use UC Browser, the mobile browser in question, suggesting that this represents a massive security leak. At stake was information related to users’ identity, communication activities, and location data – all accessible to telecom companies, network providers, and surveillance agencies.
Last month, I had the honour of speaking at the Pathways to Privacy Symposium, a privacy event sponsored by the Privacy Commissioner of Canada and hosted by the University of Ottawa. The event featured many excellent presentations (the full seven hours can be viewed here). My talk focused on the recent emphasis on the need to improve oversight, a common refrain in reaction to both the Snowden surveillance revelations and Bill C-51, the anti-terrorism bill. While better oversight is necessary, I argue that it is not sufficient to address the legal shortcomings found in both Canada’s surveillance legislation and Bill C-51. The full talk (which unfortunately has slightly delayed sound) can be viewed here or below.
Citizen Four, Laura Poitras’ enormously important behind-the-scenes documentary film on Edward Snowden, won the Academy Award last night for best documentary. The film is truly a must-see for anyone concerned with privacy and surveillance. It not only provides a compelling reminder of the massive scale and scope of surveillance today, but it also exposes us to the human side of Snowden’s decision to leave his life behind in order to tell the world about secret surveillance activity.