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June 8, 2014

It's 1984 again in Harper's Canada

Reuel S. Amdur

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Remember the controversy over the abolition of the long-form census? The Harper government was so concerned about the intrusive nature of the questions that it was abolished. Our privacy is so important that it trumped new businesses' need to have demographic information such as age and income in places that they want to locate. It is so important that the feds were prepared to sacrifice ability to develop policy based on sound information about changes effecting education and workforce participation of Aboriginals and immigrants. It was prepared to put up with a rush job on the short-form census resulting in language data that are simply useless. Nevertheless, the principle was clear: The government needs to keep its nose out of people's private affairs. In the words of former Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan, "I can tell you that our government takes Canadians’ privacy very seriously." But we have a disconnect.

In fact, we have several disconnects.  Thanks to Edward Snowden, the American whistleblower, we know about CSEC (Communications Security Establishment Canada).  Judge Richard Mosley came down hard on both CSEC and CISIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service).  The Privacy Commissioner has weighed in with a report on the Harper government’s snooping on an advocate for Aboriginal rights.

Jennifer Stoddart, who was Canada’s Privacy Commissioner at the time, found that not one but two government departments were snooping on Cindy Blackstock’s personal Facebook page.  Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development and the Department of Justice were both spying on her page and circulating content.  The Harper government was looking for personal information to discredit her because as Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society she is taking the government to the Canadian Human Rights Commission, charging that the government is short-changing Aboriginal education. 

Stoddart did not fault the departments for sending people to monitor her speaking engagements, but the agents monitoring her presentations have cost the government hundreds of thousands of dollars.  When I asked her if she would have provided copies of her talks if requested, she had a one word answer: yes.  Here we have a case of a malicious monitoring campaign in an effort to search for some basis for discrediting a citizen for doing her job too well.  Her right to privacy was not taken “very seriously.”  The violation of her privacy is not unique.

Judge Richard Mosley denounced CSIS and CSEC for deliberately misleading the courts on requests for permission to eavesdrop. These agencies coordinated with American and British governmental organizations to carry out surveillance.  He charged that CSIS deliberately neglected to tell the court that they would be enlisting US and British assistance in spying on Canadian citizens, noting that the Canadian courts have no authority to authorize foreign governments to spy on Canadians.  Has Canada learned nothing from the cozy relationship between Canadian and American spy agencies that resulted in Maher Arar’s detention and torture in Syria?

We are indebted to whistleblower extraordinaire Edward Snowden for important revelations about government snooping.  CSEC has been monitoring Wi-Fi users at airports in Toronto and Vancouver, and then following them for two weeks or more.  Defence Minister Rob Nicholson responded to questions in the House by saying that no communications were targeted or used.  But that begs the question: then what was the purpose of the exercise?  He also said that there is no evidence that the movements of travelers were monitored, a statement that is simply false.

As a Globe and Mail editorial put it, “CSEC either received rubber-stamp approval from the minister or a judge—approval that should not have been given—or it acted outside the law, of its own accord.” 

Ann Cavoukian, Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner, compared oversight of the US National Security Agency and CSEC.  “The NSA must first go before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (however imperfect) for permission to conduct surveillance activities that affects Americans, whereas CSEC simply asks the government, through the minister of defence.”  She noted as well that we do not know of any CSEC role in planting “backdoors” in encryption standards in Canada, which would undermine security of information.  And “What,” she asked, “is the nature and scale of CSEC’s metadata programs?” 

The Harper government takes our privacy very seriously.  The tooth fairy told me so.

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Dotan Rousso. Holds a Ph.D. in Law—a former criminal prosecutor in Israel. Currently working as a college professor in Canada.

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