In early June 2013, former U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee and National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA was collecting the telecommunications records of American citizens. The revelation shed light on the NSA’s global surveillance system, which expanded after 9-11. However, despite the protests and controversy that Snowden’s cache first ignited, Canada’s alleged involvement on domestic spying is failing to attract as much attention.
Through an in-depth surveillance program known as PRISM, the NSA supposedly gained direct access to the servers of leading technology firms including Google, Microsoft, and Apple. The program permits the NSA to track emails, search history, file transfers, social networking, and so on. Without a warrant, PRISM may collect stored and live communication content from users living outside the U.S., and from those contacting people outside the U.S.
Service providers vehemently denied any knowledge of data collection activity, or collusion with the NSA. However, service providers are required by law to never disclose any exchanges with the relevant intelligence agencies—so denial is the only response we could expect, regardless of the truth. Companies such as Google, Twitter, and Facebook have demanded sweeping changes to U.S. surveillance laws, and support an international ban on bulk data collection, perhaps to regain their shaken reputations.
PRISM and XKeyscore, a recently revealed Internet-surveillance tool, are likely still active, and are perhaps used to collect data on Canadians. Additionally, millions of text messages are collected daily by the NSA using a database named Dishfire. Orwell’s vision in 1984 is becoming a reality in North America.
Are all these unfiltered collections useful? Whistleblowers of the NSA commented that such invasive intrusions of privacy are unnecessary for national security. Many have asserted that the NSA’s programs are, in part, used for political and economic benefit by monitoring oil and energy firms in Latin America, and embassies across allied countries in Europe, Latin America, and Asia. Monitoring of charitable organizations such as UNICEF and Doctors of the World may make the actions of the NSA seem penetrating and indiscriminate.
These activities are generally concerning, but they are also dispiriting when considered in relation to our own country. The Government Communications Headquarters in the U.K. and the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) were discovered to have close ties to the NSA and even utilized its database. One of their joint activities included hacking mobile devices of foreign diplomats at the 2009 London G20 summit. Despite announcements from CSEC officials and the Conservative government that such activities are prohibited, records obtained by The Globe and Mail revealed that CSEC has been renewing and approving its own metadata surveillance program to monitor telecommunications traffic. Moreover, Canada’s membership in the “Five Eyes” community—a secretive and powerful espionage alliance that includes Canada, the U.S., Britain, Australia, and New Zealand—is alarming. Spying on your own citizens is concerning unto itself; sharing that information freely with intelligence agencies in other countries is considerably more questionable, especially when the courts and elected leaders of these countries seem to have little awareness, let alone influence over, the alliance.
Disappointingly few questions have been raised by the Parliament’s opposition parties. Is this because even they’re unclear on the details? Or, do they simply have no power or means to address the situation? Or, do they consider these actions reasonably justified?
Internet communication has always been slightly chaotic and insecure. By accessing the Internet, you expose yourself in ways that are still not fully clear. We must demand reform and get more involved. On Feb. 11th, an online protest—The Day We Fight Back—against mass surveillance saw participation by more than 6 000 websites and organizations including reddit, Greenpeace, and Amnesty International. Governments exploit our trust in the name of security and are operating outside the bounds of civil liberty. Diminishing our freedoms and ignoring individual rights is dangerous for democracies everywhere.