PRISM, pipelines and the trouble with the surveillance state

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There's a special Canadian wrinkle to the general argument used to rebuff critics of massive government spying on private communications: your phone calls, emails, etc. The argument goes: if you aren't doing anything wrong, you have nothing to fear. The Canadian wrinkle has to do with the environment.

The National Post's Jen Gerson interviewed a U.S. privacy expert. She asked about the PRISM program, by which U.S. agencies spy on Internet activity based outside the U.S., but which routinely rebounds back into the U.S. He said, "... if we have intel that a reporter in Vancouver is a terrorist or whatever we're going to ask for communications from the U.S. to Vancouver over this time period. They can get that, run an algorithm to see who’s been talking to X, Y, Z, maybe see your email address and your email to me ..."

Now why did he use that example? Could it be because Vancouver is a centre of opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline and other ways to move dirty Alberta oil to the Pacific coast. But isn't all that surveillance directed at global terrorists?

Here's the link: Stephen Harper says devious "foreign money" is being used to hijack our regulatory process. Energy Minister Joe Oliver says "there are environmental and other radical groups" out to "achieve their radical ideological agenda" who take "funding from foreign special interest groups to undermine Canada's national economic interest." And in his strategy on terrorism, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews includes "causes such as animal rights, white supremacy, environmentalism and anti-capitalism."

So picture the algorithm that "runs" when PRISM checks the Internet traffic between Vancouver and the U.S. in search of "terrorists." It will twig at pipelines, environment, native peoples, regulatory hearings and funding from foreign sources that are more like the Sierra Club than Al Qaeda -- in a search also implying treason. It's a long way from 9/11 and the twin towers.

But let me narrow that gap. The day after 9/11, White House figures were already discussing how to use the attacks to justify one of their dearest projects: invading Iraq. The same day some Bush team members were said to have challenged their staffs to think creatively about how to use the disaster. It's a Washington cliché to say you should never let a good crisis go to waste.

Yet even in that dodgy company Stephen Harper's creativity shines. He's found a way to integrate the panic over jihadi bombers with his single-minded economic focus on Alberta energy extraction, by targeting the mostly benign, non-violent environmentalists of B.C. That's some serious dot-connecting there.

Let me add a final note on the simple odiousness of being listened in on, even if you don't feel bothered by the suppression of legitimate protesters like environmentalists. Back in the 20th century I'd occasionally have my phone tapped or my house bugged. It had to do with helping unions organize immigrant workers or working on the editorial board of a left-wing magazine, composed mostly of academics and writers. The latter met every week in my dining room for about 20 years. In the late 1980s we were told both by a source in Canadian security and a Globe and Mail reporter that our meetings were being eavesdropped on by CSIS because we might be plotting acts of terror. It was ludicrous but also I suppose a bit titillating.

A morning radio show host interviewed me about it and asked how it felt. He treated it lightheartedly since we knew each other and maybe he was trying to make me feel better, but I heard myself bark, "It's sickening if you really want to know!" I hadn't realized how invaded I felt but recall your own reaction if your home has ever been broken into and ransacked. Or merely how you feel on those occasions when someone at a nearby table appears to be listening in as you have an intimate or painful -- or just normal -- conversation. Now multiply that by the power of the state with its global spycraft tentacles plus its ability to totally decimate an ordinary, decent life. Think, for instance, of Maher Arar.


This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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