YouTube video from the November 2, McGill University presentation hosted by Media@McGill.
Whistleblower weighs in on the threats facing Canadian journalism and privacy rights
By Natalie Wong
On November 2, 2016, Media@McGill hosted a public lecture at McGill University via video link with Edward Snowden, the well-known whistleblower who leaked NSA documents that revealed unconstitutional government surveillance activities. Snowden’s actions had significant implications for democracy and free speech, and prompted a fundamental change in the public’s knowledge and discourse on surveillance and privacy.
In light of this week’s revelations that the Service de Police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) were spying on La Presse journalist Patrick Lagacé for several months, and that the Sûreté du Québec (SQ), the provincial police force, had put at least six prominent journalists under surveillance, this talk was especially timely for Canadians.
“This is a radical attack on the operations of free press,” Snowden said. “Speaking as one of the directors of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, this unsettles me not only on a personal level […] I think it is actually something that represents a threat to the traditional model of our democracy.”
Snowden’s leaks have exposed massive levels of global government surveillance, as well as the lack of judicial oversight holding intelligence agencies accountable—and Canada is right in the thick of it.
Check out CJFE’s Snowden Archive, a complete collection of the documents leaked by Snowden and published by news media.
Bill C-51’s unprecedented intrusion
According to Snowden, Canada has one of the weakest intelligence oversight apparatuses amongst western countries, which allows the government to engage in mass indiscriminate surveillance.
“We are living lives of unparalleled vulnerability to power,” Snowden said. “Our ability to resist powerful institutions, be they corporate, be they government, has never been less than it is today.”
Bill C-51, the Anti-Terrorism Act, 2015, is a highly controversial piece of legislation that threatens the free speech, privacy, and civil liberties of all Canadians. The political rationale behind Bill C-51 is largely centered on terrorism threats, similar to the basis behind mass surveillance in the United States and the United Kingdom’s recently passed Investigatory Powers Bill.
Snowden describes Bill C-51 as “really unrestrained and unprecedented intrusion into the private lives of every citizen not only in their country but everywhere else.”
The whistleblower cites three fundamental problems with the bill:
1. Lack of meaningful oversight. How can citizens ensure that intelligence officers will be held accountable for any unlawful surveillance actions they take? For Snowden, the only way to ensure that intelligence agencies play fairly as they gain access to both targeted and mass surveillance capabilities is the threat of criminal sanction. “Appoint a judicial body, some mechanism […] that has independent prosecutorial authority, that is mandated to perform a case-by-case review of these intelligence agencies,” Snowden stated.
2. Unfettered oversharing. Canadian government departments can make available the information they hold on Canadian citizens to a range of other governmental bodies. This sharing capacity has inadequate limitations, allowing Canada to trade information about every Canadian citizen—ranging from health to cell phone records—with different agencies and departments, even if the individual in question is not linked to any terrorist threats.
3. Criminalization of speech. The bill allows anyone who makes statements that could be interpreted as promoting terrorism to be prosecuted for a criminal offence. First, this violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which explicitly protects freedom of expression. Second, the scope of this offence is incredibly vague. It does not require the speaker to be purposefully inciting terrorism—just that they know there is a possibility someone may commit a terrorist act after being exposed to their statement. This has restrictive impacts on free speech for everyone, from academics, to policymakers, to journalists.
Many Canadians voted for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau because of his promises to reform Bill C-51. But the inaction on the part of the current government to uphold those promises has failed Canadian citizens. Snowden goes even farther to reveal that reform is not enough.
“Most experts who studied [Bill C-51] said that it actually can’t be reformed in a meaningful way as written,” Snowden said. “It should be repealed entirely, and then a better measure passed from scratch that loses all the baggage [of Bill C-51].”
One blatant problem of Bill C-51 and increasing state secrecy more generally is that governments have not received the consent of the public to engage in such widespread surveillance practices.
“Governments have not asked for the permission of the public in order to engage in these kinds of operations,” Snowden said. “Instead, they deployed these kinds of capabilities in secret, even when they know these programs were unlawful or unconstitutional.”
The legitimacy of any democratic system is derived from the understanding that when citizens cast a vote, they give consent to the government to craft and implement policies. But consent is only meaningful if those who provide it are informed about what it is they are consenting to.
Visit CJFE’s campaign headquarters to learn more about Bill C-51 and get involved today.
Canadian journalism under attack
One of the chilling revelations of Snowden’s 2013 leaks was that journalists are under direct attack from government and intelligence agencies even in democracies. For example, the documents revealed that the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the British equivalent of the NSA, had collected and archived journalists’ emails. More disturbingly, officials at GCHQ likened investigative journalists to hackers and terrorists.
“Blatantly targeting journalists as the Montreal police did, or pegging them as enemy of the state as GCHQ did, makes pervasive surveillance so alarming,” said Professor Gabriella Coleman, who holds the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy at McGill. “Investigative journalism must be granted protection of state and the autonomy they need to accomplish their watchdog role.”
After news broke about the Montreal police spying on Lagacé, more bombshells revealed that the provincial police were tracking six other journalists—including three from public broadcaster Radio-Canada. Although a judge approved the warrants for such tracking, the public is outraged: journalists, legal experts, major media outlets and media unions, as well as free expression organizations have all denounced the police’s actions as an abuse of power not welcome in democratic society.
In the wake of the uproar, Prime Minister Trudeau reiterated the need to safeguard press freedom and the protection of sources. Quebec has also launched a commission of inquiry into the police’s actions. Retired Quebec Superior Court justice John Gomery, who led the commission into the federal sponsorship scandal, charged that the laws meant to protect journalists’ sources are not being followed.
"A public inquiry is a good way to find out what happened, but as far as developing policy for the future, I'm not sure it's the best way to go," he told CBC News.
It is clear the legal authorizations for spying that were intended to be used on terrorists or real domestic threats towards citizens’ lives are instead being used to monitor journalists.
“We have rules […] that can get whistleblowers or journalists charged by police,” Snowden said. “But what about when police break the law? What about when spies break the law? Suddenly, they’re being held to a very different legal standard and they’re entitled to a veil of secrecy that inoculates them against criticism or scrutiny that the rest of us do not enjoy. That is an imbalance of power that is anti-democratic [and] authoritarian.”
For Snowden, we live in a dynamic world where governments are increasingly vested with extraordinary capabilities that allow them to peer into law-abiding citizens’ private lives with impunity and very little interference. In contrast, the public knows almost nothing about how governments operate their surveillance activities.
“This inverts the traditional dynamic of private citizens and public officials,” Snowden said. “To this brave new world, we are facing private officials and public citizens.”
Privacy matters even if you have nothing to hide
“Privacy isn’t about something to hide, privacy is about something to protect,” Snowden said. “Privacy is the fountainhead of all other rights. It is the basis from which the other rights derive their meaning, their value.”
As Snowden explains, free speech is insignificant if citizens do not have the freedom to choose what they wish to say, and instead only resort to saying what is safe.
“Privacy is the ability to have something for yourself,” Snowden said. “When somebody says, ‘I don't care about privacy because I’ve got nothing to hide’, that's like saying ‘I don't care about free speech because I have nothing to say’. It’s not about you. It’s about everyone.”
“The ultimate answer to democracy is that we cannot rely on others to do the things we must do ourselves,” Snowden advised. In the Canadian context, we cannot passively wait nor put our full trust in the federal government to fulfill its promises to reform Bill C-51. And in light of this week’s scandal in Quebec, we cannot trust the provincial government to uphold freedom of the press. On both accounts, we must act and demand that Canadians’ privacy rights are protected by the governments we elected to serve us.
Natalie Wong is a student at McGill University, completing an honours in Political Science and a minor in Communications. She is also a former editor and current contributor to The McGill Tribune.