Why we sent copies of a video game to Canada's Parliament and Senate

Wednesday, March 28, 2018
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CJFE has partnered with publisher Surprise Attack Games to send 443 license keys for the video game Orwell: Ignorance is Strength to Canadian Members of Parliament and Senators. We are doing this as part of an educational initiative to familiarize Canada’s lawmakers with the ethical implications of new espionage powers that would be created for Canada’s spies following the passage of Bill C-59, An Act respecting national security matters. CJFE is concerned that many of the same fictional powers on display in Orwell: Ignorance is Strength are being made available to Canada’s very real cyber spies through Bill C-59, a deeply troubling update to the widely opposed Anti-Terrorism Act, 2015 (Formerly, Bill C-51).


The plot of Orwell: Ignorance is Strength puts the player in the role of a digital spy charged with collecting open and closed source information about residents of a country known only as ‘The Nation’. Information is collected in order to tick off goals in a sweeping national security investigation. As information is revealed, the player becomes the arbiter of truth, with the option of allowing lies and fake news to spread unchecked while monitoring their uptake and spread on social media. The impression Orwell: Ignorance is Strength gives is the overwhelming omniscience of the 21st century digital spy. It thematically reinforces many of our most pressing concerns with Bill C-59.

Chief among these concerns is the establishment of an offensive cyberwarfare mandate for the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), which would allow the CSE to “degrade, disrupt, influence, respond to or interfere with the capabilities” of non-Canadian entities. An aggressive reading of this statute could permit the CSE to, for example, “disrupt” access to the website of a foreign news organization, “influence” a foreign news organization by forging or altering documents relied upon by its journalists, or “interfere with” key technologies such as encryption tools and anonymity software that journalists and others routinely use in their work. All of these scenarios pose unacceptable risks to journalists and the free press.

We are also concerned that foreign communications monitoring activities of the CSE could incidentally or intentionally result in the collection, use, and analysis of the communications of Canadian journalists with overseas sources. Considering the breadth of information available online, in combination with the CSE’s powers to collect information from foreign allies by entering into arrangements, and from other branches of government, the CSE could potentially build comprehensive digital dossiers on Canadians without ever running afoul of Bill C-59’s prohibition on directly targeting Canadians.

“As a political statement and an educational product, Orwell, like the eponymous author, gives us a glance into the grim dystopia of total information awareness.” Said Duncan Pike, Co-Director of CJFE. “Many of the same powers in the game are proposed for Canada’s digital spies in Bill C-59. This partnership is an excellent opportunity to educate parliamentarians about what exactly is at risk in the current wording of this bill.”

If Bill C-59 is passed without amendment the potential for abuse poses an unacceptable risk to democracy, journalism and free expression. CJFE is committed to exploring new ways and new mediums to engage with issues like national security. While the narrative of Orwell: Ignorance is Strength is fictional, the investigative techniques and methodologies used by the Nation’s digital spies are not. Since Bill C-59 is under consideration in Parliament, we want to give Canadian legislators the opportunity to experience the powers of the digital spy firsthand. We believe that any responsible politician who understands the CSE Act’s implications for civil liberties in Canada will not vote for the content of this bill as is. Our message to them is clear: Play this game, but don’t play games with our rights.


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