Mass surveillance in Canada: It’s real, and it’s a serious problem

Friday, January 31, 2014

By Laura Tribe

Only two days after International Data Privacy Day, the CBC has revealed that your data has even less privacy than you thought in Canada. A presentation obtained through the Edward Snowden leaks has exposed a program run by the Communications Security Establishment of Canada (CSEC), which subjects Canadian travellers to mass data collection and surveillance at Canadian airports.

Many details remain unclear, including exactly which airports were involved and the specifics of how information was collected. However, it is clear that Canadians were targeted in this data collection.

This information comes just four months after CSEC chief John Forster released a statement denying that Canadians were being targeted in the agency’s surveillance activities.

“CSEC does not direct its activities at Canadians and is prohibited by law from doing so,” he said.

Yesterday’s revelations clearly show that this is not the case.

CSEC was already under question for its information sharing relationships with the Five Eyes intelligence alliance (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States), but this clear indication that the agency is targeting Canadians raises a number of additional causes for concern.

Even if you haven’t travelled through a Canadian airport recently, the scope and intent of this program should ring alarm bells. In addition to being a violation of your privacy (and a potential violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms), this is a serious example of unchecked power.

Who is holding CSEC accountable to Canadians? With no parliamentary oversight, we have no mechanisms to prevent current or future abuses of power, or to know what CSEC is doing with the incredible amount of insight into our lives it can gain from our metadata.

Earlier this week CJFE published an article highlighting why the oft-used fallback of “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” needs to be abandoned once and for all. If you haven’t read it yet, it’s more appropriate now than ever.

It’s time for Canadians to demand transparency and accountability in how our data is being collected and used.

CSEC has published a response to the CBC's report, including a statement that "no Canadian or foreign travellers were tracked," although not denying the program existed. On Monday, February 3, CSEC chief John Forster appeared before the Senate national defence committee, defending the agency's programs and activities. He did not deny the allegations in the CBC's report, but instead insisted that the agency had operated within the extent of the law.

This response to the leaked document should only raise more concerns about the agency and its surveillance programs, as it remains unaccountable to Canadians, and has failed to demonstrate any understanding of the potential ramifications that mass surveillance programs can have on our rights.

More in the news

CBC | CSEC used airport Wi-Fi to track Canadian travellers: Edward Snowden documents
By Greg Weston, Glenn Greenwald, Ryan Gallagher, CBC News. January 30, 2014

The Globe and Mail | Now we know Ottawa can snoop on any Canadian. What are we going to do?
By Ron Deibert. January 31, 2014

The Globe and Mail | How CSEC became an electronic spying agent
By Colin Freeze. January 31, 2014

The Globe and Mail | Spy agency’s work with CSIS, RCMP fuels fears of privacy breaches
By Colin Freeze. January 31, 2014

Toronto Star | Canadian spy agency gleaned passengers’ data from airport’s wifi
By Jessica McDiarmid. January 30, 2014

CBC | Spying at Airports (Audio interview with Ron Deibert)
Metro Morning. January 31, 2014

CBC | CSEC airport Wi-Fi snooping: Reaction pours in on Twitter
By Kady O’Malley. January 31, 2014

CBC | Spy agencies, prime minister's adviser defend Wi-Fi data collection
By Laura Payton. February 3, 2014

Laura Tribe is CJFE's National Programs Coordinator. You can follow her on Twitter at @ltribe.