Government surveillance of citizens a troubling trend in Canada

Wednesday, August 26, 2015
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An RCMP officer records at a citizens' protest rally against Kinder Morgan on Burnaby Mountain in November 2014. Several protesters were arrested. PHOTO: Mark Klotz, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License

By Rignam Wangkhang

This summer has brought to light a worrisome trend in government security agencies secretly monitoring citizens.

According to documents obtained through Access to Information requests, the RCMP used fake Facebook and Twitter accounts to monitor and connect with protest groups and advocates in Toronto. Agents posed as a fixed-income student on Facebook and asked vague questions about protests taking place across Canada. On the event page of a January 2014 pro-Ukrainian demonstration, an agent used the profile to ask organizers if they were planning on “walking anywhere.”

The profile–named Bebop Arooney and featuring a profile picture of three penguins–tracked the Facebook pages of over two dozen organizations in Toronto, including Black Lives Matter Toronto, Idle No More, the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, and six Jewish and Palestinian groups. The RCMP has confirmed that they created both the Facebook and Twitter profiles; neither account is active anymore.

Although the RCMP has stated the Facebook account was not used for surveillance purposes, organizations and advocates are condemning the actions—using a fake profile impersonating a protestor to collect information on upcoming events—as disturbing. “If there is no criminal investigation ongoing, then monitoring these groups is potentially problematic,” said Cara Zwibel, Director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s Fundamental Freedoms Program.

Recent developments in an investigation into CSIS surveillance on Canadian citizens have also raised new concerns. A complaint filed last year by the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), alleges that national intelligence service CSIS tracked environmental advocacy groups in order to gather information about anti-pipeline activities, from a dubious stance that opposing the petroleum industry is a threat to national security. The complaint also details that CSIS illegally shared information with the National Energy Board. The groups targeted included Dogwood Initiative, ForestEthics,, Sierra Club BC, and participants of the Idle No More movement.

In a troubling update on the case, the lawyer representing these environmental groups has been prevented from speaking about the hearing of the CSIS watchdog committee that is investigating the complaint. After giving testimony, BCCLA Executive Director Josh Paterson was forbidden from sharing any information with his clients, including whether he felt it was a fair hearing or not. The hearing was closed to the complainants, public and media, and future witnesses are expected to be similarly gagged.

“This whole overlying issue is (whether) freedom of expression is constitutionally protected and what’s the role of government in that,” said Dogwood Initiative Executive Director Will Horter. “Now the process that’s supposed to bring that to light to say whether our concerns are valid is actually gagged.”

These occurrences are only the most recent in a deeply troubling trend of citizen monitoring by our government agencies. 2015 has also seen the introduction of Bill C-51, a dangerous legislation that allows for increased privacy breaches and surveillance by our national security agencies, and the revelation of the mass surveillance program Levitation, in which the Communications Security Establishment collected online data from Canadians against their mandate. Although our rights to freedom of assembly, expression and association are protected in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the exercise of these rights increasingly, and illegitimately, labels citizens as national security threats.

Rignam Wangkhang is CJFE's Campaigns and Advocacy Officer.

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