Skip to main content
Complete Olympic Games coverage at your fingertips
Your inside track on the Olympic Games
Enjoy unlimited digital access
$1.99
per week for 24 weeks
Complete Olympic Games coverage at your fingertips
Your inside track onthe Olympics Games
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
// //

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.

Story continues below advertisement

"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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies