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This Conservative MP thought he could pull the wool over the eyes of Canadians about government spying. It’s not working

Sometimes it’s not hard to understand why so few Canadians trust their politicians. Case in point: Kevin Sorenson, government MP and Minister of State for Finance.

Earlier this year, a number of Mr Sorenson’s constituents wrote to him to express concerns about the reckless actions of government spy agency CSEC. His constituents had a simple request: they asked Mr Sorenson to make a pro-privacy pledge to safeguard their privacy against intrusion by government agencies like CSEC.

Instead of taking their concerns seriously, Mr Sorenson chose to try to pull the wool over the eyes of his constituents. He replied with a blasé set of scripted government talking points about CSEC -- points that had long since been refuted both by privacy experts and by a shocking series of revelations about how CSEC has become reckless, expensive and out-of-control.

Your OpenMedia team wasn’t going to take this lying down. So we reached out to our expert Privacy Coalition partners to crowdsource a response to Mr Sorenson’s misleading statements. Check it out -- Sorenson’s words are in italics.

  • Conservative Government CLAIM: CSEC provides valuable foreign intelligence that protects and promotes Canadian interests, while also safeguarding the security of Canada from foreign threats and cyber attacks. CSEC contributes significantly to Canada's own security and that of our allies.

    FACT (from legal/privacy experts): CSEC allowed the U.S. to spy on Canadians during the Toronto G-20 summit, facilitating a massive and likely illegal U.S. spy operation on Canadian soil. CSEC has also been caught red-handed conducting invasive economic espionage on Brazil’s important mining ministry -- hardly what most Canadians would consider a “foreign threat.” Far from protecting Canadians from cyber threats, CSEC even worked closely with the U.S. NSA to undermine encryption standards that many Canadians rely on to safeguard their privacy.

  • Conservative Government CLAIM: CSEC is prohibited from targeting the communications of persons in Canada or Canadians anywhere under its foreign intelligence and cyber protection mandates.

    FACT: Leaked documents have revealed that CSEC has spied on the private communications of thousands of law-abiding Canadians. Most notably they spied on the Internet activity of Canadian air travellers who logged on to Wi-Fi at Pearson International airport. CSEC even tracked the precise movements of those Canadians for weeks afterward. All this with no warrant and no independent oversight. Recently CSEC was forced to ‘fess up, admitting it collects the private information of Canadians and holding that information for up to 30 years in a database called, wait for it, CSEC PPU 007.

  • Conservative Government CLAIM: CSEC operates within all Canadian laws, including the Privacy Act, and has legislative measures in place to protect the privacy of Canadians.

    FACT: S273.65(3) of the National Defence Act provides that “The Minister may authorize the Communications Security Establishment in writing... to intercept private communications in relation to an activity or class of activities specified in the authorization.” The authorization “may” but does not have to contain conditions that the Minister considers advisable to protect the privacy of Canadians. The Globe and Mail has editorialized that these authorizations amount to an “end run” around the legal privacy protections, including the Privacy Act, that Canadians rely on.

  • Conservative Government CLAIM: CSEC’s activities are reviewed by the independent CSE Commissioner, who for over 16 years has never found CSEC to have acted unlawfully. In fact, he has specifically noted CSEC’s culture of lawful compliance and genuine concern for protecting the privacy of Canadians.

    FACT: The CSE Commissioner’s office consists of a single retired judge, with a small staff and a tiny budget that experts say is woefully insufficient to keep tabs on the rapidly expanding spy agency and its thousands of employees. He is hardly “independent,” as he reports to the same minister that CSEC reports to. Ontario’s Senator Colin Kenny has lambasted CSEC’s insufficient oversight, writing: “If Canadian security agencies break Canadian laws, there’s a good chance that nobody will be the wiser for a long time to come.”

  • Conservative Government CLAIM: CSEC may lawfully conduct activities in Canada or involving Canadians under its mandate to provide assistance to federal law enforcement and security agencies upon request.

    FACT: Recent revelations about CSEC’s spying on thousands of innocent air travellers have exploded the myth that CSEC’s domestic activities are limited to coordinating with federal law enforcement. In the case of the airport Wi-Fi spying, the victims were law-abiding air travellers, many of whom were Canadian, who were under no suspicion whatsoever. Despite this they had their private communications spied on, and even their precise global movements tracked for weeks afterward.

  • Conservative Government CLAIM: These activities respect Canadian laws and are conducted under the requesting agency’s legal authorities, such as any applicable court warrant. CSEC is bound by and must respect any limits in those authorities.

    FACT: An official report by former CSEC Commissioner and retired judge Robert Decary has revealed potentially illegal spying activities by CSEC. Decary wrote in his report that: "some activities may have been directed at Canadians, contrary to the law.” CSEC also works closely with its "Five Eyes" partners (U.S., U.K., Australia, New Zealand) who are not under any obligation to respect Canadian laws. CSEC’s commissioner has expressed concern that these international partners may not be abiding by their promises to respect Canadians’ privacy, stating that: "These activities may directly affect the security of a Canadian person.”

    Federal Court Judge Richard Mosley, the judge who claimed he was misled by CSEC’s sister agency CSIS, explains the known hazards of sharing information with foreign intelligence agencies: “Given the unfortunate history of information sharing with foreign agencies over the past decade and the reviews conducted by several royal commissions, there can be no question that the Canadian agencies are aware of those hazards. It appears to me that they are using the warrants as authorization to assume those risks.”

  • Conservative Government CLAIM: The independent CSE Commissioner, a retired or supernumerary judge, can review all activities carried out by CSEC and provides a public report to Parliament annually. In addition, CSEC has numerous accountability requirements. CSEC appears in the Public Accounts and the parliamentary estimates process. CSEC is also subject to external audit and review by the Auditor General, the Privacy Commissioner, the Information Commissioner and Commissions of Inquiry. 

    FACT: Ontario Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian, along with many other privacy experts, have blasted the effectiveness of the CSEC Commissioner’s "oversight" of CSEC. Cavoukian called a recent Commissioner’s report "doublespeak" and pointed to CSEC’s collection of deeply revealing metadata as proof it tracks Canadians. Privacy expert Ron Deibert has also described the CSEC Commissioner’s reporting as a “mockery of accountability”, and decision-makers from across the political spectrum are calling for beefed-up oversight mechanisms. As CBC’s Greg Weston puts it, CSEC’s watchdog is “mostly muzzled and defanged, whose reports to Parliament are first censored by the intelligence agency he is watching, then cleared by the minister politically responsible for any problems in the first place.”

Don’t Canadians deserve better from their government than these kind of misleading claims and political spin? Sadly this is all too typical of a government that has become hugely out of touch with Canadians -- and even their own supporters -- when it comes to privacy. Not only is this government responsible for the reckless activities of CSEC, they are also ramming through Bills C-13 and S-4, which would greatly expand the government’s capacity to spy on everyday Canadians.

To be fair, Sorenson isn’t the only Conservative MP to broadcast these insulting government talking points to Canadians. The following Conservative MPs passed along similar points and should also be held to account: Patrick Brown (Barrie), Joe Daniel (Don Valley East), Lois Brown (Con -- Newmarket-Aurora), Ryan Leef (Yukon), James Bezan (Selkirk-Interlake), John Carmichael (Don Valley West), Mike Allen (Con -- Tobique-Mactaquac NB), Phil McColeman (Brant), and Ted Falk (Provencher).

Canadians from across the political spectrum have had enough - and if you have too, don’t forget to join the over 40,000 Canadians who are part of the Protect our Privacy Coalition.

We’ve beaten back online spying before, and we can do so again, so long as we stand together. Join today at http://OurPrivacy.ca and consider taking the next step by writing a letter to your local newspaper with our easy-to-use Letter to the Editor tool. You’ll be amazed at how effective this can be, particularly with many MPs back in their ridings for their summer break. Check out our tool today at https://OpenMedia.ca/letter.

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