Putting blinders on Big Brother’s surveillance apparatus

Posted on August 28, 2013 in Governance Debates

NationalPost.com – FPComment/Letters to the Editor
13/08/28.   Byron Holland

The Internet has been around for two decades. But from a public-policy perspective, we’re just starting to figure it out. Fortunately, there are some online activities for which there is an established offline precedent. Most of us would agree that surveillance is one of those activities.

Governments — even generally transparent, democratic ones, such as our own — always have engaged in surveillance activities. But as a society, we long have recognized the need to place safeguards on surveillance activities. Wiretaps and other forms of “traditional surveillance” are subject to judicial oversight, requiring warrants. Outrage at RCMP activities in the 1970s, including unauthorized mail openings and wiretaps without warrants, resulted in the MacDonald Commission, and ultimately the creation of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

In fact, it was not so long ago that we found the issue of oppressive state scrutiny so repugnant that we were willing to go to war over it (albeit a cold one): The liberty-destroying surveillance regimes imposed by the Stasi, and by other communist agencies, epitomized the reason we stood up against the Soviets.

Fast forward a few decades, and we now have the U.S. National Security Agency’s PRISM program, which copies virtually every online message sent to and from the United States — all without transparent judicial oversight. Cell phone data, Facebook updates, Google searches, emails – pretty much all communications – are tracked and stored by the U.S. government.

And in case you thought you were safe because you’re Canadian, it turns out that your data is tracked and stored, too.

But, if the lack of vocal outrage on the part of Canadians is any indication, most of us are apparently fine with it. This is why my group, the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA), has decided to work with the polling firm Ipsos Reid to find out what Canadians think of online privacy and government surveillance.

We were surprised to find that about half of Canadians (49%) believe it is acceptable for the government to monitor email and other online activities of Canadians in some circumstances. When those circumstances include preventing “future terrorist attacks,” that number rises to 77%.

That means that more than three quarters of Canadians are fine with indiscriminate and ongoing government monitoring of Canada’s online activity without a warrant, as long as it is in the interest of national security.

Given past lessons about personal privacy, how can Canadians seem so apathetic? What is it about the Internet that changes our perceptions and values concerning civil liberties?

Our apathy may be partially due to the fact that only 18% of us start out with the baseline belief that our Internet activity is confidential to begin with. In fact, our research shows that 63% of Canadians believe the government already is monitoring who visits certain websites, while 40% think the government is collecting and saving Internet activity records so they can be reviewed in the future. If most of us aren’texpecting privacy on the Internet, it would follow that we would be ambivalent when we learn that government is indeed watching us.

This is a problem. Canadians deserve internet privacy.

The argument that “if you have nothing to hide, you shouldn’t be concerned” is baseless. Even in cases where people really do have something to hide, there are plenty of historical examples of behaviour that once was criminally sanctioned, but which we now recognize to be justified acts of resistance to unjust laws. Think about the civil rights movement, for instance.

The argument that the NSA collects only time, place and tech “metadata” — as opposed to the actual content of internet messages — also is not convincing. Such metadata provides information about whom you contact, when and how you contacted them, and where you contacted them from. With that information, a profile of an individual and their actions can be created. But this data is devoid of context. And so linkages can be inferred that erroneously connect individuals to illegal activity. We Canadians need only remember what happened to Maher Arar to understand what can happen when authorities misinterpret information.

Moreover, the definition of what constitutes “terrorism” in the eyes of governments continues to expand. From environmental activists to members of the Occupy and Idle No More movements, the net seems to continue to be cast even wider.

The time has come for a national dialogue about online surveillance in Canada. Yes, governments should have the power to monitor citizens under certain circumstances and with the appropriate oversight. But we are now in uncharted waters, with governments having unfettered ability to monitor the wide-ranging activity of an unprecedented number of people in every corner of the world.

To this end, my organization, the Canadian Internet Registration Authority — which manages the .CA domain space on behalf of all Canadians — will be dedicating its Canadian Internet Forum to a discussion on government and corporate online surveillance. I invite you to join us at cif.cira.ca.

If we found out that the government were opening every single letter in the Canadian postal system and monitoring all of our phone calls, Canadians would be enraged. Why is it, then, that when the government does the very same thing online, we become complacent?

National Post

Byron Holland is the CEO of The Canadian Internet Registration Authority.

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2 Responses to “Putting blinders on Big Brother’s surveillance apparatus”

  1. Erica Henry says:

    After reading the article on the big brother surveillance apparatus I began to think critically on aspects of the Internet I was unaware of until now. For example the thought of my online activity being watched by the government had never occurred to me let alone this information being tracked and stored. Rumors are consistently going around about law enforcement having access to your online activity and tacking information about simple things like parties have always gone around, but I always assumed they were just rumors. Upon this realization I found I saw positives in the technology but also could agree with the positives of allowing this technology to have blinders or safeguards added to it. Although I am able to see the good this technology can do, when it comes to my personal privacy I am unsure of how I feel about the government having full access to all of my social media posts. As I am sure other Canadian citizens would as well.

    I feel that the big brother technology can be beneficial to the government and even citizens in several ways under the right circumstances. As the article mentions as an example for the use of preventing or stopping terrorist attacks or plans. This technology may also be beneficial when looking at committed crimes, catching criminals, re-opening closed cases, or preventing the crime before it occurs. Also this technology can be beneficial to Canadian citizens who are not members of the government. For example a school principal could use it to prevent online bullying or even offline bullying before it occurs. Although I believe this technology can serve the government and Canadian citizens in many positive ways, I believe that a safeguard on this technology could also be positive when looking at our rights to privacy.

  2. I believe we should be cautious about how much of a blinder we place on “Big Brother’s surveillance apparatus”. I don’t think anyone would advocate to have their mail or calls surveilled, but I’m convinced surveillance online is different. Surveilling online activity can be viewed as a way to protect the general public from abuse. The internet can be an easy place to prey on the weak and vulnerable while remaining relatively anonymous. Internet use spread quickly, it’s still considered a relatively new communication tool. We need to understand more about potential consequences of use, including, but not limited to, privacy, personal identity and safety. Until the ease of misuse is controlled, I feel it imperative we maintain a practice where potential criminal activity can be traced to it’s source.

    Concerning highly confidential information, this can still be shared in complete confidence through courier or our national postal service.

    Although I don’t particularly like the idea of the government watching everything we do, I trust they wouldn’t scrutinize us, unless there was something we were doing worth scrutiny. I realize the implications of government monitoring our activity can erode our freedom, be controlling and potentially manipulated. For the time being, I’m confident, it remains the lesser of two the evils.


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