Mass surveillance program in Canada revealed on International Data Privacy Day

Wednesday, January 28, 2015
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Wednesday, January 28, 2015
By Laura Tribe This morning Canadians learned of Levitation, a surveillance program run by Canada’s Communications Securities Establishment (CSE), which monitors documents being uploaded and downloaded on file-sharing websites around the world. The program was uncovered through a document leaked by Edward Snowden, published by the CBC in partnership with The Intercept. According to the document, CSE is monitoring between 10-15 million uploads or downloads each day from 102 file-sharing websites, in an attempt to track terrorist activities. CSE is not permitted to target the communications of Canadians. However, according to The Intercept and CBC, Canadian IP addresses have been inadvertently swept up in the mass collection of data. “CSE is clearly spying on the private online activities of millions of innocent people, including Canadians, despite repeated government assurances to the contrary,” said communications manager David Christopher. Although there has been much discussion of the NSA’s surveillance practices in the wake of the Snowden leaks, we still know comparatively little about Canada’s own surveillance agency. While CSE has yet to comment directly on Levitation, the discovery of this program should help to spur a national conversation about our country’s privacy and surveillance policies – which remain largely unknown to Canadians.

Privacy concerns growing in Canada

Today’s leak on Canadian surveillance is incredibly timely, as January 28 also marks international Data Privacy Day. To mark the occasion, this morning the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada released the results of a poll showing that privacy is increasingly an issue of concern to Canadians. Of those surveyed, “nine in 10 Canadians were concerned about privacy. One in three (34%) said they were extremely concerned – up significantly from 25 percent in 2012.” According to the Privacy Commissioner, “60 percent [of Canadians] say they have little expectation of privacy today, either online or in the real world because there are so many ways in which their privacy can be compromised.”

Implications for free expression

This lack of expectation of privacy is of particular concern, as it is having a substantial chilling effect on free expression around the world. Earlier this month, PEN America released a disturbing study, Global Chilling: The Impact of Mass Surveillance on International Writers, which showed that many writers are resorting to self-censorship as a result of digital surveillance. The survey collected responses from 772 writers living in 50 countries, and the results showed very little difference between democracies and non-democracies in terms of its writers’ surveillance concerns. Those surveyed said that recent surveillance revelations have made them substantially more cautious in what they write.
“Writers living in liberal democratic countries have begun to engage in self-censorship at levels approaching those seen in non-democratic countries, indicating that mass surveillance has badly shaken writers’ faith that democratic governments will respect their rights to privacy and freedom of expression, and that—because of pervasive surveillance—writers are concerned that expressing certain views even privately or researching certain topics may lead to negative consequences.” – PEN American Center
Using Freedom House’s ranking of global press freedom, where countries are categorized ‘free,’ ‘partly free’ or ‘not free,’ the survey found that “more than 1 in 3 writers (34%) in “Free” countries said that they had avoided writing or speaking on a particular topic, or had seriously considered it, due to concerns about surveillance.” The growing lack of privacy and expectations of mass surveillance are resulting in a serious chill on free expression and leading to self-censorship. Protecting our privacy is a critical aspect of protecting our right to free expression in the digital age. CJFE is a part of the Protect Our Privacy Coalition, calling for effective legal measures to protect the privacy of every resident of Canada against intrusion by government entities. Join the coalition at
Laura Tribe is CJFE’s National and Digital Programs Lead. Follow her on Twitter @ltribe.

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