Where to draw the line on government surveillance

Big Brother is watching. But, of course, you already knew that

You’re being watched. But, of course, you already knew that.

Camera surveillance has become an accepted—almost expected—backdrop to modern life. We willingly give permission to Google and Facebook to make billions trading on our personal preferences and interests. And it’s been common knowledge for decades that Canada participates with the United States and other English-speaking countries in monitoring global communications. Given all this, how can anyone be properly shocked by news the U.S. government is collating massive amounts of information gleaned from online sources or cellphone logs?

Nevertheless, despite the banality of our modern lack of privacy, it’s important to consider what is and is not acceptable in the world of Big Data. There are still a few bastions of confidentiality worth fighting for.

Last week, the Washington Post and the Guardian newspapers published evidence from Edward Snowden, a former U.S. National Security Administration (NSA) contractor, explaining the existence of a hitherto-unknown electronic surveillance project called Prism, which allows government agents access to the servers of some of the world’s largest online firms, including Facebook, Google, Apple, Yahoo, Skype and Microsoft. Additional revelations uncovered the scrutiny of U.S. cellular phone records by the NSA, as well.

The apparent purpose of Prism and other surveillance projects is to profile and track terror suspects worldwide. And while the process sound ominous, it’s no more ominous than earlier efforts.

For decades the Americans, along with Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, have been intercepting global satellite communications through a system popularly known as Echelon, or the Five Eyes. Echelon has been the subject of several books and lengthy media reports, as well as an investigation by the European Union in 2001 into whether the information was being used for commercial purposes. When considered beside Echelon, Prism looks to be a difference of degree (and name-brand recognition), rather than kind.

And keep in mind that collecting and collating data about customers is a core competency of Google, Facebook et al. If we’re prepared to allow these firms to use information about who we are and what we do online to sell on-screen ads, it seems entirely overwrought to worry about governments using the same information to fight terrorism. Plus, the bulk of the recent revelations involve the use of “metadata”—vast pools of information on numbers called, duration of calls and websites visited— used to discern patterns of behaviour. Actual intercepts of communications involving U.S. citizens still requires a warrant.

Finally, the widespread public approval for the use of camera footage in tracking down the Boston Marathon bombers (not to mention the 2011 Vancouver Stanley Cup rioters) surely signals the broader fact that digital surveillance has become a permanent and accepted component of modern society, particularly where major crimes are concerned.

This erosion of public and online privacy in the interest of enhanced security obviously reflects a trade-off at work. U.S. President Barack Obama was not being disingenuous when he said, in response to news of the Prism revelations: “You can’t have 100 per cent security and also then have 100 per cent privacy and zero inconvenience.” For the most part, people seem to accept this fact.

Yet this doesn’t mean it’s time to abandon entirely the concept of personal privacy or the notion that some aspects of life ought to be off-limits to government intrusion. So where does the line lie?

Clearly, there needs to be judicial oversight of governments’ domestic spying power to ensure it is tightly focused on national security. Such protections exist in the enabling legislation in the U.S., Canada and Britain; following these recent revelations, government officials reassured their citizens that the procedures were still being followed. But without regular scrutiny—including leaked information of the sort Snowden provided— we will never really know if this is the case.

Which brings up the most troubling issue regarding recent secret government investigations: the Obama administration’s hand- ling of whistle-blowers and the media. Following several high-profile leaks involving information about North Korea and al-Qaeda, the U.S. government has reacted by secretly, and in unprecedented fashion, seizing the phone and Internet records of reporters for the sole purpose of identifying the source behind the information.

Rather than violating personal privacy to keep the public safe, this shows a government using its extraordinary anti-terrorism powers to protect itself from political embarrassment. A line has clearly been crossed. It’s worth noting that the Obama White House has prosecuted more government officials for the release of secret information than all previous administrations combined.

Governments have been granted the ability to watch over us by a largely approving public because we’ve been convinced these powers are necessary and useful in keeping us safe. But these powers are not unlimited, and are not intended to allow governments themselves to avoid scrutiny. With this in mind, a free and unencumbered press is the best guarantee that the proper balance between security and privacy can be maintained.




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Where to draw the line on government surveillance

  1. So it’s OK for the government to spy on innocent citizens but not to cover their embarrassment? Neither is OK and the first one is worse.

    “largely approving public?” It’s one thing that there are cameras in some public places. This is not that radical but I don’t think people were expecting that a copy of their entire hard drive was sitting in a government server in an NSA building. I doubt anyone approves that. Remember that they have full authorization to spy on foreigners. Canada signed an intelligence sharing agreement with the States so all bets are off that your privacy is being respected.

    Many of your statements are vast generalizations about people’s attitude to their privacy. I’m not on facebook, have a “do not track” app on my browser, do not want any of my records copied on to a hard drive controlled by our government, or any government we happen to share intelligence with. I don’t want corporate contractors with no public accountability anywhere near my records. All of my friends want more privacy, not less.

    Mr Snowdon came forth not because the system existed but precisely because he saw abuse of the system. The consequences of abuse could be extreme for any one person and their family. It’s not about “if you have nothing to hide” but even if you are innocent and someone decides that your political opinions are too “dangerous” they can simply add a few incriminating things to your hard drive and boom… you’re in jail. Canadian’s confidence in our police forces is rapidly declining due to their radically repressive tactics, agent provocateurs, kettling of peaceful protestors, preventive detention, lying about the law, etc.

    My right to privacy is promised by the constitution but stolen by an overly paranoid government bent on total control. Perhaps this may explain why Harper is on a private prison building spree.

    As for a free and unencumbered press, This paper is heavily encumbered by it’s owners who set the editorial policy and hire very one sided opinion writers who have lost the either the ability or the will to really effectively analyze and critique our private and public institutions.

    It’s one thing to have court ordered wiretapping but what we have now is a sprint towards the nightmare of “1984″.

    • Could not have said it any better.

  2. There are two major problems with this I want to point out:

    First, this editorial misunderstands how internet companies are able to collect and use data, when compared to the government. Google may have a lot of data on people who use its’ tools, from mail to search to whatever. However, due to consumer protection laws, they can’t use this information to build a profile of you, and they can’t do things like put human eyes on your email. Similarly, the data that companies like Google and Facebook sell on to 3rd parties is anonymized data that is supposed to be impossible to track back to you. The government has no such limitations. They can do things like see what searches you make and compare that to the emails you send, something Google cannot; the government can know about you from just your Google data than Google is allowed to know about you, and the government can combine this with information they pull from other sources. The scale of what the government can do in terms of surveillance isn’t even in the same league as what any individual corporation can do, and there are no effective checks on the government while privacy legislation stops corporations from going too far.

    Second, there is the nature of the internet in Canada and the statements by the US government that non-citizens have no expectation of privacy from US surveillance. My understanding is that with the way the internet is built, “internal” Canadian internet traffic is normally routed through the US. For example, even trying to access my ISP’s home page, my request appears through New York. Now, it is known that three letter agencies in the US have wiretapping equipment at major US telecommunications hubs. Given their lack of respect for the privacy of non-US citizens, it becomes a question of when they start doing automatic examination of all Canadian internet traffic rather than if.

    We don’t know how the sharing agreement works between the Canadian and US intelligence agencies. It may be illegal for Canadian agencies to spy on us, but it may not even be necessary for them to do so in many cases if they can simply request information on us from the Americans and stay within the bounds of the law. And, due to the lack of transparency surrounding these agencies we don’t know how the law is being interpreted and applied. If it were say, China who had this potential surveillance capability of Canadians, I’d be less worried because at least our government doesn’t have an information sharing agreement with them.

    The point about the need for a free press is well taken, but I can’t believe how this article downplays the scale of the surveillance we’re looking at and how little we’re able to do to protect our privacy. We in Canada can’t stop the US from collecting information on us, it borders on impossible, and there is very little oversight of the Canadian agencies (and even less transparency) that may potentially have access to the data the US is able to collect.

  3. It’s not a problem to enhance the security. But, it’s very important to keep citizens safe. Too suspecting isn’t good either. Hopefully the government can be wise in action

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    Roku Media

  4. Where to draw the line?
    There is no line – “whatever we can get away with” is the motto

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