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Canada talks back about secret spying

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It’s been a busy few months for anyone who cares about protecting the privacy of Canadians. Since last fall, Canadians have witnessed a steady stream of revelations about the expensive spying activities of CSEC (Communications Security Establishment Canada), Canada’s equivalent to the NSA.

In just a few short months we’ve learnt that CSEC:

- was caught red-handed systematically collecting the private data of thousands of law-abiding Canadian air travellers.
- facilitated a massive, illegal U.S. spying operation on Canadian soil during the Toronto G-20 summit.
- spied on the private communications of Brazil’s mining and industry ministry, prompting Brazil’s president to denounce Canada on Twitter
- spied on important Canadian friends and trading partners at the behest of the U.S.

    With so much happening, we decided to bring together two of Canada’s leading privacy advocates for a Social Media Town Hall -- Josh Paterson, Director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), and our own Steve Anderson, Executive Director of OpenMedia.ca.

    The BCCLA and OpenMedia.ca recently came together to announce a landmark lawsuit that aims to put a stop to all illegal government spying on the private lives of Canadians.

    We wanted to give everyone the opportunity to talk directly with Josh and Steve -- so we threw the doors open to all Canadians on FacebookGoogle+Twitter, and our website.

    It turned into a fascinating discussion -- here’s a flavour of how it went:

    What can metadata -- the type of data CSEC is collecting -- reveal about you?

    As Dan Good asked us on Facebook: Can personal information be deduced by long-term mining of meta-data?

    Steve (OpenMedia) replied: Extremely private details of your personal life can be deduced by this long-term mining of your metadata. The government is trying to convince Canadians that because they are not collecting the "content" of your data, that somehow that makes it okay. Metadata is basically all the information that will show your “movements and associations through an airport, across town or across the country” while collecting “a digital trail that can reveal where you live, work, travel, what you purchase online, who you associate with, even what time you are likely to go to bed, wake up and leave home.

    [For more on what this type of data can reveal check out this infographic]

    What about innocent-until-proven-guilty?

    Under this topic Ian took to our website to ask: Does the government consider everyone guilty before being proven innocent?

    Steve replied: It certainly seems the government adopts a guilty-until-proven-innocent approach to spying. We know now that they are conducting blanket surveillance of law-abiding Canadians -- collecting our private data and storing it in giant databases. This certainly creates fear among the public -- and a chilling effect on free speech. We'll be keeping up our work for effective legal measures to protect all Canadians from this out-of-control surveillance bureaucracy.

    How long will the court case against CSEC spying take?

    Les Ley enquired: How long will the court case take to hear?

    Josh (BCCLA) replied: A while. These things tend to go slowly. The federal government has responded to our lawsuit saying we shouldn't have standing to bring the case. So we may have to fight on that point before we get to the main action about what we allege they have done wrong. Then much of the evidence may be secret so we can expect to have to argue about that in court too. It's going to be a long-haul case, and it could go all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

    Aren’t we protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms from this kind of spying?

    In a follow-up question on Facebook, Dan Good also asked: Is there anything in our charter of rights [and] freedom that prohibits this activity?

    To which Josh (BCCLA) replied: As for whether there's anything in constitution that prohibits this activity, we say YES. We say this is an unconstitutional search. We say this kind of wholesale surveillance is fundamentally incompatible with Canadian law and democracy.

    Is the Canadian government allowed to get other countries to spy on Canadians?

    Dameon specifically asked: Canada always says "we're not spying on Canadians" ... but clearly they're allowing others to do so. How is it Constitutional for the Canadian Government to knowingly allow another country to spy on a Canadian?

    To which Steve replied: The total lack of independent oversight of CSEC is a huge concern. At present the supposed oversight consists of a single commissioner who reports to the same Minister that CSEC does. He's acting more as CSEC's guard dog than a true watchdog. That's why we need a total overhaul of spy agency oversight - including a cross-party Parliamentary committee that can get to the bottom of how CSEC has been spying on Canadians and that can recommend measures to make sure such spying never happens again.

    And as Josh (BCCLA) put it: In our opinion, the government shouldn't be able to do indirectly what it is not allowed to do directly. So if it's unconstitutional for Canada to place mass surveillance on Canadians and mass scoop our data, Canada shouldn't be able to just have New Zealand do it for us, and then give Canada the information.

    What about the security issues -- isn’t government-stored data vulnerable to hacking?

    Michelle Vee, a long-time member of the OpenMedia community, asked us: And if the gov isn't losing hard-drives, they're getting hacked. Mass data collection is a gold mine for hackers. It's a double threat; either them getting hacked or losing data by pure stupidy, or they're doing it for their own nefarious agenda. Are there any top advised privacy tools that people could use in the meantime that could ensure at least a small amount of privacy?

    Steve responded by underlining the need for effective legal protections to stop the government collecting private data in the first place: We know this government has a terrible record when it comes to data security. They were lambasted by the Privacy Commissioner a few months ago for data breaches that affected over 700,000 Canadians. There are tools and practices here that can help safeguard privacy -- However the only real long-term solution is effective legal protections to safeguard the privacy of every Canadians. With your help, that's what we'll keep working toward with the next election around the corner.

    Who will decide the outcome of the court case?

    Nick Considine asked: When this whole issue is taken to court, who is it that ultimately decides the outcome? What kinds of power do they have, is it just like a random judge, or are we aware as to who will be put in the spotlight to make the decision?

    Josh (BCCLA) replied: It will be a judge of the BC Supreme Court who has the first kick at the can here, as the BCCLA has filed its case in that court. A judge will be assigned -- we don't know who we will get. The BC Supreme Court has the power to declare the practice, and the provisions of the National Defence Act that enable the practice, unconstitutional, and make a range of orders as it sees fit. We're asking the court to declare that these provisions violate the Charter, that the authorizations and directives issued under them violate the Charter, and any other remedy the court thinks is just. We want the practice stopped and the constitution to be upheld.

    Is the Canadian government allowed to crack the encryption of Canadian citizens?

    Dameon asked: What legal rights (without obvious court orders) does the Canadian government (or any third party nation) have to crack the encryption of Canadian citizens?

    Josh Paterson replied: We think that the Charter right against unreasonable search and seizure, and privacy rights, apply to our information whether encrypted or not. Short of a court order, we would have serious problems with a government program to undermine encryption used by Canadians, such as what we've heard about in the States and the U.K.

    It wasn’t all quite so serious:

    In the true "ask us anything" spirit of Reddit:

    Fauxtella: How many licks does it take to get the centre of a Tootsie Pop?
    Steve: I believe it's 1984.
    Fauxtella: Terrible.

    Where we go from here -- and how you can help

    At OpenMedia.ca, our community are at the heart of everything we do. We’re glad we had this opportunity to connect with Canadians on these hugely important issues. Over the coming months, we’ll be ramping up our campaign to stop government spying and to demand answers from those responsible.

    You can play your part by joining Canada’s largest pro-privacy coalition at http://OurPrivacy.ca -- and by urging your MP to take a pro-privacy commitment at https://openmedia.ca/stand

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