Canadians have at least two reasons to thank NSA whistleblower and political dissident Ed Snowden: his leaks have led to revelations about two separate but related violations of our privacy laws. The first came at the infamous G20 summit in Toronto back in 2010. The second involved Federal spooks eavesdropping on our meta-data at an undisclosed airport. Both stories involved cyber-snooping by the good folks at the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) and have raised serious concerns about the extent of the agency’s spying on Canadians.
Let’s begin with the documents released by Journalist Glen Greenwald of the new media organization the Intercept that show just how much our current government is in bed with the security industrial complex south of the border. According to a CBC investigation, the top secret operation was based at the American Embassy in Ottawa which became a de-facto listening post in Canada for the U.S. based National Security Agency during the G20 conference. However, this would never have been logistically possible without the involvement of CSEC, which more than likely gave the Americans access to our telecommunications network.
Just why the Yanks would be so keen on wiretapping the phones of negotiators and representatives of the various countries participating at the G20 summit in Toronto, is anybody’s guess. Though, if similar cloak and dagger type missions against the President of Brazil Dilma Roussef or Germany’s President Angela Merkel is any guide, they’re all about gaining the upper hand in the intense horse-trading that tends to go on when high level delegates from different countries get together. One theory is the intelligence was used to undermine the bank tax being proposed by certain countries and IGOs (the E.U. for example) in the wake of the 2008 economic meltdown.
What is pretty clear at this point, though, is that any such espionage would have required a court order or warrant in order to be legal under Canadian law and that if CSEC were involved in operations that are not authorized by their mandate, the agency would essentially have been going rogue. As University of Ottawa law professor Craig Forcese, a national security and privacy rights expert, said “If CSEC tasked the NSA to conduct spying activities on Canadians within Canada that CSEC itself was not authorized to take, then, I am comfortable saying that would be an unlawful undertaking by CSEC.”
The second instance of spying that comes to us from the classified material stolen by Ed Snowden from his former bosses at the NSA, involves CSEC gathering meta-data on foreigners passing through an unspecified major Canadian airport. Despite the denials that this almost certainly lead to accessing the private communications of Canadians by the Prime Minister’s office and the head of CSEC, Forcese is incredulous about the truth of these statement, likening the inevitable collection of meta-data from Canadians who happen to be in the same location as legitimate targets to the killing of innocent civilians as collateral damage in a war zone. He also casts doubt and the increasingly dubious distinction made by various government officials between collecting meta-data and the content of e-mails, phone calls, etc., calling it a “false dichotomy.”
As for argument that in the event that spooks working for CSEC were asked to break the law, they would immediately report their bosses to the Commissioner who serves as their watchdog. While I am heartened to hear that we have this type of safeguard in place, we can’t put faith in the people under contract with the government or salaried public servants to always do the moral thing, like Snowden did, and go over the heads of their superiors when the law is ignored.
Parliamentarians were rightly outraged that a matter as serious as this had never been brought before the House of Commons for debate, with some calling for the establishment of a National Security Committee to provide greater oversight of CSEC, which currently answers only to the executive branch of the government. Alternatively, as some legal experts have opined, the matter could be referred to the Federal Courts by the CSEC Commissioner, for judicial review, to determine its legality. The courts actually have a great deal of experience dealing with sensitive issues of national security and could be trusted to handle these questions with the appropriate degree of discretion. Either way, the status quo is obviously not doing the trick, and Canadians are alarmed by the growing threat to their privacy posed by the expanding surveillance apparatus in their Country.
You would think with the robust debate that these disclosures have provoked, which even Stephen Rigby, National Security Advisor to Prime Minister Harper basically admitted would never have happened if it weren’t for the actions of Mr. Snowden, at least one MP in the House of Commons would have the decency to give him just a tiny bit of credit for coming forward, and risking life in prison. I’m here to tell you not to hold your breath Canada! That is, unless you consider MP (Don Davies) of the NDP, calling him a “whistleblower” a compliment. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but a far cry from Tory master mud-slinger Paul Calandra’s description of Glenn Greenwald, instrumental in bringing the story to the attention of the Canadian public and one of the most respect journalists in the world today, as a “porno-spy.” No matter. So long as Canadians realise that they can count on whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and muckrakers like Glen Greenwald to keep their government and governments around the world honest.
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