True free expression requires privacy

May 19, 2015
Tuesday, May 19, 2015
By David Christopher

“If I have nothing to hide, I have nothing to fear.” This is perhaps the most common reason people give for shrugging off stories about government intelligence agencies, like the National Security Agency (NSA) in the U.S. and the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) in Canada, spying on their own country’s citizens.

Of course, nothing is quite that simple. “If I have nothing to hide, I have nothing to fear” is based on a fundamentally false premise—that one needs to be doing something wrong in order to be placed under surveillance.

In fact, as NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has made clear, government spying activities are aimed at all of us. It takes no suspicion whatsoever to get trapped in the government’s surveillance dragnet—phone records are being spied on, private Internet activity is being monitored, and even private emails to MPs are being collected and stored in giant government databases.

All this with no reason for suspicion, often with no warrant, and with no independent or parliamentary oversight. Government assurances that CSE is restricted from spying on Canadians have not been borne out by the facts. CSE was recently revealed to be spying on up to 15 million Internet downloads a day, with Canadian IP addresses among the targets.

So there is clearly a great deal to fear about such widespread government intrusion into people’s private lives. Beyond the fact that nobody wants a government bureaucrat peering over our shoulders at what we say and do online, privacy underpins many other rights that are essential in any healthy democracy.

For example, without strong privacy safeguards, it becomes far more difficult, if not impossible, for people to exercise their human right to free expression. It is an established fact that when people believe they’re being watched, their behavior changes in very significant ways.

People who believe their words and activities are being monitored often become much less willing to speak out, express views outside the mainstream or publicly express dissent about the government. This is already happening on a huge scale. Privacy expert Bruce Schneier has calculated that more than 700 million people have changed their online behavior as a result of the NSA revelations. And PEN Internationalhas reported that over a quarter of writers have either avoided speaking on a topic they feared would subject them to surveillance, or seriously considered doing so.

So this is not a theoretical debate. The recent onslaught of government legislation—Bills C-51, C-13 and C-44—amount to a systematic evisceration of Canadians’ privacy rights and a sweeping expansion of the surveillance state, with dangerous consequences for freedom of expression.

Bill C-51, in particular, threatens to transform the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) into whatThe Globe and Mail has described as a “secret police” force in Canada.

This raises an important question: you may think you have “nothing to hide,” but what if the government’s secret police disagree? As professors Craig Forcese and Kent Roach have pointed out, Bill C-51 mandates CSIS to tackle vaguely defined “threats to the security of Canada”—and even authorizes the agency to take actions that contravene the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and other laws in order to do so. Forcese has also outlined how C-51’s new spy powers could be targeted at democratic protest movements, such as peaceful environmentalism.

Although CSIS will require a warrant for many of these activities, Bill C-51 will grant the agency warrantless access to extensive personal information about Canadians held by many government departments and agencies.

When challenged directly, the government has refused to explain why a bill supposedly aimed at “terrorists” would in fact ensnare law-abiding Canadians. It’s easy to see the chilling effect Bill C-51 could have on Canadians’ willingness to engage in the democratic process. As Jim Emberger of the New Brunswick Anti-Shale Gas Alliance says, “It has a chilling effect on the public. For instance … if I stand in front of a truck, or parade in front of a business, if I don’t know if that’s going to put me in jail with a criminal record for terrorism, I’m much less likely to voice my opinion or take part in public discourse.”

As more and more information comes to light, it’s clear that Canada faces an alarming, and widening, privacy deficit. This, in turn, has profound implications for free expression and a chilling effect on people’s willingness to speak out. It’s never been more important for people to work together to tackle this issue, before our democratic values are hollowed out yet further. You can learn more by visiting the Protect Our Privacy Coalition at

David Christopher (@dchristopher_bc) is the communications manager for OpenMedia, which safeguards the possibilities of the open Internet.

This piece was originally published in CJFE’s 2014-15 Review of Free Expression in Canada.

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