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Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian
Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian

Ann Cavoukian

The silence over privacy puts our freedoms at risk Add to ...

Technology allows our every move to be tracked, collected and catalogued by our governments. U.S. President Barack Obama’s announcement of reforms to the National Security Agency (NSA) demonstrates that free and open societies need a candid discourse on the surveillance powers of intelligence agencies. Yet, while our U.S. neighbours are debating the future of phone and Internet surveillance programs, our government is maintaining a wall of silence around the activities of the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC). This silence is putting our freedoms at risk.

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There is also a striking contrast between how the two countries watch over their intelligence agencies. The NSA must first go before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (however imperfect) for permission to conduct surveillance activities that affect Americans, whereas CSEC simply asks the government, through the minister of defence. The NSA is overseen by two congressional committees. CSEC is overseen by a single commissioner – a supernumerary judge, with a small staff. His after-the-fact review of CSEC’s activities is only submitted to Parliament after his report is reviewed by the same minister who approved the activities involved. The resulting annual reports often speak in circumspect and general terms. Parliament, and therefore the public, have virtually no say. This approach to accountability is inadequate at best, by any standard of independent oversight.

The status quo leaves Canadians vulnerable to secret and unaccountable methods of surveillance. Edward Snowden’s revelations have demonstrated the enormity of the NSA’s surveillance of U.S. citizens, but we still know startlingly little about the extent of Canada’s own surveillance programs. What we do know hasn’t come from our political leaders, but rather from Mr. Snowden and journalist Glenn Greenwald. Only in this climate has the CSEC commissioner acknowledged that they intercept, retain, and use the private communications of a “small” number of Canadians. No word yet on CSEC’s metadata surveillance programs. And complete silence on CSEC’s role in helping the NSA to secretly plant “backdoors” in the encryption standards that we all depend upon, thus weakening the privacy and security of our digital communications.

Many important questions remain unanswered. What is a “small” number of private communications? What is the nature and scale of CSEC’s metadata programs? How long is this information kept? How much international information-sharing is going on? How far can CSEC go in actively collaborating with foreign intelligence agencies?

Unfortunately, our only way of finding much-needed answers to these questions may be through another Snowden revelation. In a society dedicated to freedom and the rule of law, this is preposterous. Canadians are entitled to know precisely how far this agency is empowered to go. CSEC needs to be brought under an appropriate system of prior judicial oversight and be controlled by Parliament. We must develop a legal framework that allows for necessary surveillance and security, but also provides strong privacy protection, transparency and accountability. Until we have that, we are left to trust the government’s blanket statement that “everything is fine, just leave it to us.” This is simply intolerable. Blind faith is not enough.

Canadians deserve to know, not only whether CSEC activities are in compliance with controversial laws, but that CSEC is truly respecting Canadians’ rights to privacy. A “trust us” model is unacceptable.

To help break this inexcusable silence, my office is holding a public symposium on Tuesday, on International Privacy Day, which everyone is invited to view via webcast at RealPrivacy.ca.

Ann Cavoukian is Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner.

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