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Technology writer Mathew Ingram (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Technology writer Mathew Ingram (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

MATHEW INGRAM

We can’t accept Internet surveillance as the new normal Add to ...

Mathew Ingram is a technology writer based in Toronto.

As The Globe and Mail has reported today – based on classified documents obtained from a confidential source – U.S. intelligence officials appear to be mapping the communications traffic of several large Canadian corporations, including Rogers Communications Inc., one of the country’s largest Internet and telecom providers. Perhaps the most depressing aspect of this news is how completely unsurprising it is.

By now, we have all been subjected to a veritable tsunami of surveillance-related leaks, courtesy of documents obtained by former U.S. intelligence analyst Edward Snowden, a trove from which this latest piece of information is also drawn. These files suggest that the National Security Agency uses every method at its disposal, legal and otherwise, to track every speck of Web and voice traffic, including tapping directly into the undersea cables that make up the backbone of the Internet.

In that context, the idea that intelligence agencies are snooping on the networks of Canadian corporations like Rogers seems totally believable, despite the fact that there is a 66-year-old agreement between Canada and the United States that supposedly prevents each country from spying on residents of the other. While the classified document that has come to light doesn’t say that any snooping is occurring, it seems clear that the behaviour it describes is designed to create a map of those networks in order to facilitate future surveillance activity.

The United States has repeatedly argued that this kind of monitoring is necessary in order to detect the activities of potential threats to national security. The problem with this approach, of course, is that no one knows where those threats will appear, or how they will manifest themselves, because of the diverse nature of modern international terrorism – and so the inevitable result is a kind of ubiquitous surveillance, in which every word and photo and voicemail message is collected, just in case it might be important.

One of the risks inherent in the steady flow of leaks from Mr. Snowden and others is that the new reality they portray eventually becomes accepted, if not outright banal. Of course we are being surveilled all the time; of course our location is being tracked thanks to the GPS chips in our phones; of course the NSA is installing “back door” software on our Internet devices before we even buy them. At this point, it’s hard to imagine a surveillance revelation that would actually surprise anyone, no matter how Orwellian.

If nothing else, one of our duties in this kind of environment – a duty not just for journalists but for governments as well, and the Canadian government in particular – is to prevent this kind of behaviour from becoming banal, to fight the overwhelming sense of “surveillance fatigue” that each new revelation triggers, by shouting our disapproval from the rooftops if necessary.

We don’t need to live in a world where the locks on our virtual doors have a secret passcode so that government forces can enter at will if they believe we are a threat to national security, or where our every click is recorded and filed away in a secret location, and our cellphones and Internet devices listen to our conversations waiting for us to utter certain red-flag trigger phrases. If our governments believe it is necessary to trade our freedom for what amounts to an illusion of security, we need to do everything in our power to convince them that this is not a trade we wish to make.

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