It was all smiles the other day as Barack Obama sat down with top executives from the technology companies that arguably exercise as much control as governments do over our everyday lives. The U.S. President asked the head of Netflix whether he’d brought an advance copy of the new season of House of Cards. Cue the laughs.
Only there was nothing funny about the reason for the meeting. The exponentially increasing power of computers has facilitated data collection not even George Orwell could have imagined. The companies represented at the meeting – led by Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter – have constructed elaborate business models that depend on unimpeded access to the data we half-unwittingly provide them as we e-mail, post, surf and tweet. But now they’re worried that government spies could ruin their good thing.
You see, the same people who spew endless banalities about their personal lives and political opinions into the public domain with Facebook and Twitter (that would be you, Margaret Atwood) are suddenly very upset that spy agencies in the United States, Canada, and other countries have leveraged the existence of this treasure trove of data to, say, catch bad guys.
“A person under surveillance is no longer free; a society under surveillance is no longer a democracy,” says a new petition signed by Ms. Atwood and other authors who call themselves Writers Against Mass Surveillance.
For Google and Facebook, such warnings are frightening indeed. What if they break the soma-like spell their awesome “services” have cast on us, to the point that, gasp, we unsubscribe? The tech giants are terrified of foreign governments blocking the cross-border flow of the data they collect, threatening their burgeoning cloud-computing businesses.
Hence, Tuesday’s meeting with Mr. Obama, which was preceded by an open letter from the tech giants arguing that the balance “in many countries has tipped too far in favour of the state and away from the rights of the individual.” They asked Mr. Obama for new limits on the ability of governments to tap into their data, a request whose irony seemed lost on those smiley tech execs, unless they were just being insincere.
Let’s hope Mr. Obama gave them a polite hearing, but no more. The hysteria flowing from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks about that agency and its global partners, including Communications Security Establishment Canada, is beyond disproportionate to the threat they present.
This week, Mr. Snowden said NSA snooping “threatens to become the greatest human-rights challenge of our time.” But frankly, I’d put more faith in the credibility of the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which polices the NSA, than someone whose freedom from U.S. prosecution currently depends on the pleasure of Vladimir Putin, an ex-KGB agent whose government persecutes gays and flouts the rule of law.
The Snowden leaks, including a CBC “exclusive” on Canada’s facilitation of NSA spying during 2010’s G20 summit in Toronto, have been long on inference but glaringly short on facts. If you let your imagination run wild, as anyone who viewed the suggestive CBC report might, you’d likely fear the worst. But there is no evidence that anything sinister occurred during what was likely a routine security operation.
Besides, it’s not as if the NSA and CSEC are collecting “metadata” on communications between domestic and foreign parties to, like, you know, sell us stuff. Such data – which includes the phone numbers, date and time of calls, but not their content – can be valuable in identifying potential terrorist threats. U.S. authorities recently used it to obtain convictions against Somali immigrants who raised money for al-Shabaab.
A U.S. lower court judge ruled this week that the NSA’s collection of such phone data potentially violates the constitutional ban on unreasonable search and seizure, though it would be surprising if the ruling stands. The NSA already faces extensive judicial and congressional oversight. And it likely faces additional limits on its activities – if only for appearance’s sake – following Wednesday’s release of review panel report commissioned by Mr. Obama.
In Canada, however, CSEC’s fast-expanding operations cry out for more oversight, such as the creation of a committee of parliamentarians with security clearance to review the agency’s activities. But it is naive to argue we could roll back such surveillance while China and Russia plunge deeper into it. Rather than being a threat to our democracy, Ms. Atwood, it may be essential to protecting it.