CSEC's rigged election scare an excuse to invade our privacy

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CSEC building in Ottawa. Photo: Eshko Timiou/Wikimedia Commons

Had someone other than the current White House occupant won the 2016 U.S. election, Justin Trudeau would be in serious trouble. But with Trump the standard by which so many politicians are now measured, the sheer mediocrity of the Trudeau administration has yet to be properly appreciated.

Indeed, anyone seeking public approval need only raise a question or two about Trump and they are suddenly elevated in the eyes of folks who should know better. Even war criminals like George W. Bush, who make tepid comments about the need for Trump to respect the press, garner thought pieces about the need to "reconsider" their legacy of mass murder and torture.

While Trump certainly provides the major power players the distraction they need to pursue their own vicious agenda -- note that despite all the chaos emanating from the most famous Twitter feed of the 21st century, the stock markets are stable and absent of panic -- the alleged "Russian interference" in the U.S. election has become for many a primary focus for opposing Trump and seeking his removal. If Trump were not the outwardly racist and sexist boor that he is, more could appreciate that his policies are not outside the realm of what passes for standard operating procedure in Washington or Ottawa, where climate change denial, colonial practices, militarism, mass surveillance and detention, deportations, corporate welfare, and other similarly nefarious daily practices continue regardless of who holds the title of Prime Minister or President.

On this side of the border, all Trudeau needs to do is tweet about welcoming refugees or show up at a Pride parade and all of his sins are forgiven or ignored, despite the fact that, for example, his refusal to cancel the Safe Third County Agreement continues to pose a lethal risk to refugees (including the Haitians who Trudeau began deporting long before the Trump-Haitian refugee influx). Similarly, as Trudeau basked this summer in rainbow flags, LGBTQ2 folks in Saudi Arabia faced the death penalty with the full support of Trudeau, who approved and continues to defend a $15-billion weapons deal for the regime.

But because he isn't Trump, people breathe a sigh of relief and point to the validation of puff pieces in Esquire, Rolling Stone, and the Washington Post that hail Trudeau as the last best hope for humanity. Should we survive this epoch, objective historians will be aghast at the cognitive dissonance.

Annoying self-adulation

This annoying self-adulation -- a smug Canadian white supremacist nationalism that has a similar 1960s corollary to when Canada was wrongly portrayed as a peacemaking haven for draft resisters; all the while Canadians contributed more per capita to the murder of Vietnamese people than Americans, and an elder Trudeau refused to cut off weapons and other industrial exports that fuelled the war -- is also reflected in some of Canada's more dangerous institutions, which are also playing the "we're good guys because we're not Trump" game. Indeed, while Trump bars trans folk from the military, here we have a military whose generals are cheered for marching in Pride parades while their membership continues to suffer outrageously high rates of male violence and homophobia.

In the "We're not Trump, so we must be good for democracy" sweepstakes, agencies that are traditional enemies of civil liberties have jumped on the bandwagon too, stressing that their mandates are to uphold the very institutions they undermine through illegal acts, including complicity in torture, defiance of court orders and mass surveillance. 

One of the finer examples of such dissonant thinking came out in June, when Canadian media breathlessly and uncritically reported on potential cyber threats to Canada's next federal election in 2019. Jumping aboard the "Russians stole the U.S. election" claptrap, the secretive Communications Security Establishment-Canada (CSEC) produced what was deemed a "stark" report about the potential for a threat which the report itself notes did not exist in 2015 and appears to be a mere blip of a possibility in 2019. Its laughable title, Cyber Threats to Canada's Democratic Process, produced much bully pulpit rhetoric from Karina Gould, minister of democratic institutions, who promised, "We will approach our shared challenge ahead in a very Canadian way: working together, co-operating, and with a steely resolve. We will continue to put the security of Canadians and Canadian democracy first."

CSEC Chief Greta Bossenmaier spoke in grand terms as well, noting, "Today is the first step. For the first time in the world, a democracy is informing the public about cyber threats." Bossenmaier's claim, a nose-stretcher at best, was nonetheless quoted without comment.

CSEC undermines democracy

The first irony lost on the media was that CSEC is among the growing number of state security institutions that pose a major risk to anything remotely resembling democratic practice in Canada. After all, this is an organization that mishandles information it illegally collects on Canadians, refuses to disclose the nature of its access to personal information held by Canadian telecommuncations corporations, illegally collected data in Canadian airports by data mining the activity of travellers, admits that it "incidentally" spies on Canadians, even though that is not part of its mandate, worked diligently with the U.S. National Security Agency to eliminate data encryption protections, and "accidentally" shared tons of personal data on Canadians with other intelligence agencies for years.

In keeping with state security practice, the report is based on carefully crafted scare tactics that present numbers appearing far higher than they actually are. For example, we learn that 13 per cent of national elections held around the world this year had been allegedly targeted for cyber interference (which CSEC bases not on its own research, but on newspaper articles). While that seems substantial, a little bit of research reveals how insignificant it actually is. As of the date of the report, there had been 34 elections (a number that also includes a series of referenda), which, at 13 per cent, means the real number of those allegedly affected was four. This is the kind of subterfuge that marks a report that proudly hails its adherence to accuracy, transparency and due diligence.

Nonetheless, for an organization that is constantly violating our personal privacy and sharing our communications with state security partners in the Five Eyes alliance, the report is a valuable propaganda tool with which it will seek to further increase its powers to control and monitor internet communications, all in the name of preserving democracy against malevolent actors.

Lost on all politicians and those making decisions about new legislation to grant CSEC unlimited powers to "preserve our democracy" is the fact that the report itself is built on three highly flawed assumptions.

The first assumption is that "elections are at the core of any democracy." No proof is provided to back up this claim about those billion-dollar advertising sprees, in which personalities, prefabricated sound bites and slogans, and utterly useless phrases ("He's got our back," "Help the middle class") become the normative discourse. The real core of a democracy is an engaged, educated, participatory citizenry that demands accountability and transparency. As historian Howard Zinn famously remarked, "Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens." When these core direct action values actually are engaged, however, they immediately draw the interest of CSEC, CSIS, the RCMP, the War Dept., and others who spy on, infiltrate and attempt to disrupt such grassroots democratic processes.

Indeed, it was members of the Trilateral Commission, who, investigating how to take back power from the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, famously wrote in The Crisis of Democracy that the dangers to "democracy" come "not primarily from external threats… but rather from the internal dynamics of democracy itself in a highly educated, mobilized and participant society...There are also potentially desirable limits to the indefinite extension of political democracy." In other words, governments and their corporate masters rely on a quiet, accepting population to enforce policies which benefit the rich few and exploit the many.

Since the 1970s, there has been a great effort on the part of many institutions concerned about maintaining and expanding corporate rule to celebrate and reward selfishness and apathy. The Trilateral Commission concludes, "The effective operation of a democratic political system usually requires some measure of apathy and non-involvement on the part of some individuals and groups." Of course, democracy for the rich and powerful looks very different than it does for the vast majority of the population. The fact that so few people vote is not a reflection of apathy, however; it in fact seems to symbolize the fact that political parties offer so little choice in the first place that most people shrug and conclude that all politicians are the same. As Simon and Garfunkel sang in the famous Mrs. Robinson verse about going to the candidates' debate: "Laugh about it, shout about it, when you've got to choose, any way you look at this you lose."

Flawed assumptions

Assumption two is that political parties and politicians "represent the interests of voters." An objective overview of the political party structure in Canada would indicate that the only parties that might actually speak to and act on the concerns of those most hurt by the cruel economic system that governs Canada are excluded from debates, marginalized as "fringe" parties by the media and other politicians, and subjected to state security surveillance and disruption. (Those with less than fond memories of the 2015 election may recall a certain "left-wing" party taking it as a matter of principle that balanced budgets would be a clarion call for the electorate.)

Assumption three is that "The media is where discourse between politicians and voters most often occurs." But the amount of media concentration in corporate hands makes any real discussion of issues outside of very narrow limits impossible. CSEC reminds us that we have the right to "freely engage, challenge and propagate ideas in public" and that freedom of the press is also protected, though this might come as a surprise to The Independent's Justin Brake and Vice Media's Ben Makuch, both Canadian journalists facing jail time for doing their jobs.

"For democracy to work, citizens need to trust that the process is fair, that politicians are not beholden to foreign or criminal interests, and that the media is not influenced by foreign or criminal interests attempting to sway voters and the outcome of the democratic process," CSEC declares.

Nowhere is there any indication that voter cynicism and mistrust of the electoral process might be inspired by the record of Canadian politicians themselves. Nowhere is there mention of Pierre Poutine, robocalls, corporate contributions, public relations firms, and standard electioneering techniques that have always marked Canadian elections, which are designed not to honour the will of a fully informed and engaged voting public, but rather to deceive people into supporting a particular image that they might feel comfortable with at the top of government.

Yet CSEC believes the glorious act of Canadian democracy is under threat from nefarious foreign actors. They refuse to accept that the system itself is the problem, and not any outside effort to influence it. Indeed, Trudeau came to power promising a proportional representation that would better reflect the final vote tally. But once ensconced with a majority, Trudeau has decided that keeping that majority takes precedence over people's desire for a slightly more representative system. You don't need Russian hackers to generate cynicism and mistrust within the populace; Trudeau does a great job on his own.

CSEC also warns gravely of cyber disinformation campaigns, yet what of the incessant disinformation (otherwise known as promises) that emanate from the mouths of politicians? One need only look at the daily barrage of propaganda coming out of the Trudeau team on issues ranging from climate change (they want to mitigate the scourge, but approve pipelines and energy megaprojects that exacerbate the problem); they speak of a new nation-to-nations relationship with Indigenous peoples while continuing to act in contempt of a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling that almost 600 days ago called on them to end racially discriminatory practices against 165,000 Indigenous children.

No transparency

The CSEC report relies to a great degree on what is calls "classified intelligence," and while on the one hand declares there is little to no threat, on the other, states that they will not "provide an exhaustive list of cyber capabilities, or the way that adversaries could deploy them, as the activities of Canada's cyber adversaries would take chapters to catalogue." But if the threats are so exhaustive and demanding of our attention, why are we asked to take their word for it, and why have Canadian media so pathetically parroted such statements without digging deeper?

While CSEC praises the importance of an open democracy, it also ignores the annual report of the Information Commissioner on the Access to Information Act, which again criticized Trudeau for backing away from promises of more information, not less, emanating from the halls of government. As the report states:

"In March 2017, the government announced its plans to delay the first phase of the Act's reform, citing the need to 'get it right.' Our investigations reveal, once again, that the Act is being used as a shield against transparency and is failing to meet its policy objective to foster accountability and trust in our government.

"Budget 2017 contained no funding for transparency measures and, sadly, there is no direction from the head of the public service regarding transparency, likely meaning there will be minimal impact on the culture of secrecy within the public service. To top it off, institutional performance in relation to compliance with the Act is showing signs of decline, while Canadians' demand for information increases."

Nor does CSEC have any qualms with new anti-democratic powers under the state security bill C-59, introduced this summer. Even the government's own internal analysis of the bill notes that:

"Considering the information about individuals that can be aggregated, and the things that can be learned from such aggregations using modern technologies and then offered for sale by data-brokers, CSEC's acquisition and use of such information ... has the potential to affect privacy interests protected by section 8 of the Charter."

As fall discussions begin about new legislation that further inhibits the rights of all people in this land, the Trudeau regime and his fawning media gallery can be relied upon to point south and hint that Trump-like actors may be produced in Canada if we don't give the spies everything they want. To succumb to such disinformation would be the true threat to democracy.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. 'national security' profiling for many years.

Photo: Eshko Timiou/Wikimedia Commons

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