We just celebrated Data Privacy Day, although you’ll be forgiven for having missed it. The stores weren’t filled with gleaming balloons that spelled out “Shhhhhh” and cards that said, “Oh my God, my metadata is showing!”
Government snooping on digital communications, which is a front-page issue in much of the world, is greeted with yawns in Canada. Ideally this will change after last week’s one-two punch: First, interim federal privacy commissioner Chantal Bernier issued a report warning that government cyber-snoops should have a tighter leash, followed by a disturbing news story that proved her point.
It seems that Canadians have likely been the subject of digital surveillance by the Communications Security Establishment Canada, our own cyber-spies, according to files obtained by the CBC from the U.S. whisteblower Edward Snowden. Apparently CSEC tracked the wireless devices of passengers emerging from Canadian airports for days. CSEC is supposed to monitor only foreign data, so if there were Canadians at this airport – not much of a stretch – these activities “constitute a clear violation of CSEC’s mandates and almost certainly of the Charter,” according to security expert Ron Diebert.
Should we care, as long as our packages from eBay arrive on time? Surely the law-abiding citizen doesn’t need to worry about a little government snooping here and there? If you believe that, you should read Ms. Bernier’s report, which concludes that the laws governing Canada’s digital surveillance operations are out of date. We are driving a Ferrari with Edsel brakes.
“The technical capacity for surveillance has grown exponentially,” she writes, and there’s a commensurate need for accountability and oversight of spy agencies. She notes that the ideas of what is domestic and foreign data are blurred in our wired world, and that individuals and not countries are now the primary focus of intelligence gathering. Among her recommendations: Laws should be updated to “curb over-collection” of data, and CSEC should provide more information about its activities to the Canadian public.
The report contains, at the end, a dispiriting list of past reports that have made similar urgings and fallen into a gaping chasm of official indifference. I worry that in a few months you’ll find her report propping up a table in a Parliament Hill cafeteria.
Her report “drew crickets in Ottawa,” The Globe’s Josh Wingrove wrote. Even before it came out, Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, took note of “the shameful Canadian silence on surveillance.” In the U.S., he blogged, “the surveillance issue has emerged as a significant political issue since the Snowden leaks and the U.S. government has recognized the need to address it.” But here? Please feel free to picture a member of the government, gaze averted, whistling a show tune.
It’s hard to imagine our friends to the south shrugging off these revelations. Americans shriek when you touch their privacy parts. President Barack Obama was recently forced to utter the name “Snowden” and make changes to NSA collection policy. He had to acknowledge the gravity of the situation, and the public anger. He had already bowed to pressure and appointed a panel to examine the NSA’s reach. (It recommended that the collection of phone data should be curbed.)
Now, Americans have always been happy to give their government the benefit of mistrust. Their founding principles include wariness and “get off my damn property,” while ours might be best described as, “can’t we all get along?” That’s a great policy 90 per cent of the time, but in this case we may want to take a (fig) leaf from our neighbours, and do more to protect ourselves.
This is not the first time Mr. Snowden’s documents have pointed to dubious goings-on in our cyber-spying agency: Previous leaks indicated that CSEC colluded with its partners in the NSA to allow eavesdropping on leaders at the G20 summit in Toronto, and collect data on Brazil’s Mines and Energy Ministry. This, at the very least, is something Canadians should know about.
But, you might say, spies need great leeway in collecting data from cellphone records and e-mail trails, in order to protect us from terrorists. Absolutely, I agree. I’m just not sure which terrorists were hiding in the mines of Brazil, or at the climate conference in Copenhagen, where NSA listening was reportedly aided by its Canadian and global partners. Maybe the bad guys were tucked away in Lego headquarters.
The privacy watchdogs have been baying a lot lately. Imagine if we listened to their warnings, instead of rolling over and going to sleep.