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The End of Privacy?

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On June 10, the Guardian reported former United States National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s comments on why he decided to become a whistleblower.

“The NSA has built an infrastructure that allows it to intercept almost everything,” he said.

“With this capability, the vast majority of human communications are automatically ingested without targeting…emails, passwords, phone records, credit cards. I don’t want to live in a society that does these sorts of things.”

In the days after that statement was reported, some prominent voices rejected his concerns as hyperbolic. “He was lying,” declared U.S. House intelligence committee chair Mike Rogers on June 13. “It’s impossible for him to do what he was saying he could do.”

The U.S. ambassador to Canada assured Canadians his country was not spying on them. Canada’s NSA partner, Communications Security Establishment Canada, assuaged worries surrounding its similar snooping program.

At the time, relatively few of the programs that would be revealed over the next few months had been disclosed. Now, five months of leaks and investigative work later, the world does appear remarkably similar to what Mr. Snowden described.

The documents show the U.S., and potentially its allied partners such as Canada through an intelligence sharing pact called Five Eyes, has programs in place to spy on hundreds of millions of people’s emails, social networking posts, online chat histories, browsing histories, phone records, phone calls and texts. “Nearly everything a typical user does on the Internet,” in the words of one leaked document.

It’s harvesting not just metadata on millions of individuals, but the content of their messages, their address books, their chat contact lists – spying on “a sizable fraction of the world’s e-mail and instant messaging accounts,” according to the Washington Post. It’s accessing not just individual users’ data, but sucking up giant, indiscriminate swaths, other documents show. And it’s spying on friends and foes alike.

All of this dramatically affects Canada. Due to how the Internet is structured and the popularity of U.S.-based tech services like Google up north, millions of Canadians may have been exposed to these collection programs. Canadians are after all, foreigners in America, and not subject to constitutional protections. The CSEC commissioner, in his August report, says the agency may have illegally targeted Canadians over the past year – he can’t be sure. Documents suggest Canada spied on the Brazilian mining and energy ministry. On Oct. 22, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association launched a lawsuit against CSEC.

Meanwhile, CSEC’s chief insisted Oct. 9 that, at least when it comes to the agency’s “foreign intelligence mandate,” the agency does everything according to Canadian law, protects Canadian privacy, and does “not target Canadians at home or abroad…nor anyone in Canada.” Agency officials also insist everything they do is reviewed by CSEC’s commissioner.

Given this dramatic reframing of Canadians’ online lives, Embassy has decided to devote its entire security policy briefing to the issue of digital surveillance. The newspaper has partnered with the Canadian International Council’s digital magazine, OpenCanada, to deliver its briefing online in an interactive and helpful way.

We hope we will foster debate over Canada’s involvement in the digital era in the post-Snowden world.

Carl Meyer, Associate Editor, Embassy News, and
Taylor Owen, Editor-in-Chief, OpenCanada, Research Director, Tow Center for Digital Journalism

Anatomy of a Spy Scandal

A timeline of how the 2013 surveillance leaks unfolded, and the evolution of Canada’s electronic eavesdropping agency by Carl Meyer.

Is Someone Watching You Read This?

Steve Anderson describes how over 35 organizations, more than a dozen experts, and Canadians across the country have come together to ensure governments respect our right to privacy.

Conservatives Still Weak on Oversight

This isn’t the first time that privacy advocates have sounded alarm bells in recent years, argues Charmaine Borg.

Canada’s Cyber Conundrum

The internationalization of cyber espionage means CSEC is under pressure to satisfy the intelligence cravings of both Canadian government departments and foreign reciprocating agencies, argues Charles Burton.

Defend Privacy, Fight Terror

Citizens are not prepared to allow privacy to become a casualty of state surveillance, argues Ann Cavoukian.

What Are Our Intelligence Agencies Up To?

We should know, argues Wayne Easter, and that’s why it’s time for Canada to establish an effective intelligence oversight committee.

Canada is an ‘Attractive Target’ for Cyber Spies

Does the security environment today demand widespread surveillance? John Forster, on behalf of the nation’s electronic eavesdropping agency points out the growing list of ‘primary cyber actors of concern.’

The Cyber Samba Turns Nasty

The Snowden revelations are fueling the rapid militarization of the cyber realm by exacerbating the suspicions of states as to the intentions and capabilities of others, argues Paul Meyer.

The New Digital DEW Line

The potential reach of these agencies into our personal lives might leave Canadians wondering whether online privacy is obsolete, argue Steven Staples and Matthew Tomlinson.

Shutting the Backdoor

Ron Deibert on the issues raised by the predominance of the “backdoor paradigm” to monitoring digital communications for security purposes.

Calling For More Eyes On Our Cyber Spies

Patrick Baud wants to see enhanced public scrutiny of Canadian intelligence agencies in light of recent revelations that Canada has been engaging in economic espionage.

Spying Games

Canada has been caught spying on Brazil. Rafal Rohozinski and Robert Muggah on why Canadians should care.

Canadian Surveillance 101

PRISM is an American program, but the questions it raises should concern Canadians.

This series is a collaboration between Embassy and the Canadian International Council.

In the series

Canadian Surveillance 101

Canadian Surveillance 101


PRISM is an American program, but the questions it raises should concern Canadians.