As Parliament resumes this week, the Conservative government will be introducing yet another set of anti-terrorism provisions.
The CBC has learned from federal sources that the legislation will “provide national security agencies with explicit authority to obtain and share information that is now subject to privacy limits.” These are the laws being prepared by Public Safety Canada.
The laws were in the works even prior to last October’s shooting at Parliament. After that infamous day in Ottawa, preceded days earlier by an incident in Quebec, the Harper government emphasized the case for Bill C-44 (“Protection of Canada from Terrorists’ Act”), aimed at expanding CSIS’s mandate globally, among other things.
Then, just last month, Bill C-13 — otherwise known as the “Cyberbullying Bill” — received royal assent. Other than a few provisions addressing the issue in its name, Bill C-13 is mostly designed to give law enforcement more investigative powers. Canada’s Privacy Commissioner, Daniel Therrien, along with a host of civil liberty groups, have criticized these new pro-security developments. There’s not enough oversight to “watch the watchers,” so to speak.
The Harper administration hasn’t responded with much substance to these warnings. The House of Commons Public Safety and National Security committee has given Bill C-44 a few hours of consideration, and Therrien hasn’t been asked to testify in regards to the bill’s shortcomings.
The advent of online technology and the post-9/11 culture of fear have mixed to create a truly frightening global security apparatus with the power to eliminate much of human privacy. Surveillance has become a centerpiece of the “War on Terror,” which has killed far more civilians than “Islamic terrorists.” The West’s counterproductive post-9/11 policies continue to act as a recruiting tool for Muslim extremists around the world.
Canada, a part of the 5-Eyes international security and intelligence alliance, seems to be going through a period of security and surveillance enhancements that, according to numerous watchdogs, lack overall accountability. It’s within this kind of climate that the Harper administration is tabling and passing more and more pro-security laws before the next federal election — all without extensive debate.
This kind of atmosphere isn’t just affecting the state itself, but also private telecommunication companies that Canadians use on a daily basis. The issue of lawful access to private communication metadata by state authorities is a hugely important topic that should be discussed thoroughly, given that it affects the very fabric of a democratic society. Yet it took an Access to Information and Privacy request from Michael Geist, a professor at the University of Ottawa, to show that the government has been trying to figure out a way to have telecoms install interception and surveillance apparatuses into their systems.
When former Public Safety Minister Vic Toews tabled Bill C-30, or the “Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act,” in early 2012, public outrage at its provisions caused the government to eventually withdraw the bill in February 2013. One highly criticized component of the dead bill was the mandating of Canadian service providers or telecom companies to install total surveillance systems and report their findings to the state when asked. A memo obtained by Geist shows that despite the bill’s failure to become law, the government is still talking to telecoms about installing interception systems to collect user communication, which would be disclosed to state authorities, who will be able to lawfully access such information without warrants.
Yet perhaps the most telling component of the document obtained by Geist is the telecom companies’ apparent nonchalance when it comes to the privacy of their clients. The memo notes that these companies, amazingly, have told the government that actual legislation isn’t really needed to compel them to add surveillance or interception systems for the monitoring of private users. That’s because, according to the memo, prepared for Public Safety Canada, “the telecommunications market will soon shift to a point where interception capability will simply become a standard component of available equipment, and that technical changes in the way communications actually travel on communications networks will make it even easier to intercept communications.”
In other words, don’t bother passing those laws because, soon enough, all ISPs will be procuring surveillance and interception systems from manufacturers by default. It’s hard not to be at least a bit shocked by how overly compliant these companies are when it comes to such matters. There’s been a substantial amount of publicity given to the fact that tech giants like Google and Facebook are giving their customers more encryption options in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks — much to the displeasure of government “spy masters.” Yet, on the flip side, Canadian telecom companies are basically telling the government that in the future they’ll be working to make state surveillance much easier. Despite all the work done by brave whistleblowers around the world (of various political stripes), it’s still apparently easier to base politics on fear rather than on courage.
It’s easier to relegate these security and privacy developments into a mental corner and treat such matters as purely technical than to situate them in their broader, “War on Terror” context. These are not just cold, meaningless developments in technology that occur outside the world of human interaction. A state apparatus that can pry into the lives of its atomized citizenry is indicative of totalitarian tendencies, threatening not just the quality of democratic practice, but, given the proliferation and importance of electronic communication, liberty itself.
It’s within this overall context that mass spying and policing powers will be expanded in Canada, in addition to many other countries, who have also, subsequent to incidents such as the Charlie Hebdo massacre, fallen prey to the politics of fear.
Canadian telecom companies received a huge number of requests — about 1.2 million in 2011 alone — from federal agencies for private user information. There are no signs that such a pattern of surveillance will reduce itself over the coming years. It’s now in the hands of civil society to build off of the work done by whistle-blowers and to sway public opinion in favour of privacy, liberty, and freedom.