Photo: flickr/Corey Burger

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In the most recent Snowden revelations, it has come to light that the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) — the digital surveillance and intelligence arm of the Canadian government — has been conducting a program that amounts to ‘mass surveillance‘.

Levitation, as the project is called, is designed to collect, store and analyze the histories and activity patterns of Internet users who upload or download “suspicious files.” Each time one of these files is created or downloaded onto someone’s computer, the CSE tracks that user’s activity for five hours before and after the file has been accessed.

The same methods are used by companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon to trace a user’s browsing history and recreate a days’s worth of browsing information.

In the case of these Internet giants, bits of text (called ‘cookies’) are stored in the user’s browser and then analyzed so that these businesses can display targeted advertisements.

In the case of Levitation, the aim is not to generate capital, but to fight the spectre of terrorism.

Breaching privacy to fight terrorism

The increase in the power and scope of espionage programs has arisen in response to terrorist attacks occurring in Western countries. However, there is considerable room for doubt that anti-terror surveillance powers do much to stop terrorism from occurring. 

A stark example is Germanys push to bolster its surveillance capabilities as a reaction to the Charlie Hebdo shootings, even though France at the time already had some of the strictest security measures in Europe.

The CSE, despite having no authorization from the file-sharing websites themselves, has gathered data detailing the habits of millions of people, Canadian and otherwise. The project is not limited to the CSE, as it involves resources and tools developed by Britain’s GCHQ and the U.S.’s NSA as a part of the Five Eyes spying alliance (which also includes Australia and New Zealand).

This surveillance project is an obvious and flagrant breach to the privacy of people globally.

And, it must be noted that the people considered as ‘threats to security’ as defined in the Levitation program — and, therefore, by the Western governments involved in the alliance — range from jihadis to journalists. There is also no apparent distinction as to the extent of surveillance conducted upon these ‘threats’. 

Given the hazy definition of terrorism and the recent trend by the Western governments to label environmental activists among others as terrorists‘, it is not unreasonable to conclude that this database contains the private information of those are are totally innocent — except of the ‘crime’ of casting doubt upon those in power.

Levitation also makes use of a technique called ‘machine learning’ — the combination of artificial intelligence programming with statistics — so that the software may produce better results by being ‘aware’ of its success and mistakes and adjusting its behaviour accordingly.

This creates a sinister backdrop to the Big Data craze, especially in the case of impressionable graduates, where the position of Data Scientist is presented as an excellent career move — the CSE advertises in Canadian campuses under enticing taglines, such as “Can you keep a secret?”

The ethical ramifications of Big Data are poorly understood, and have problems even in the private sphere.

How do we ensure our privacy?

Let’s refresh on the Levitation project: 

  • data accessible to governments ranges five hours before and after a suspicious file is accessed

  • information is stored for up to a year and the list of suspects selected from this program is passed along to the CSE office

  • tracking methods employed are so extensive that the information can be traced from a file download to email, and is sophisticated enough to access Facebook pages

This is well and good to stop terror threats, but if this dragnet ensnares the friends of justice as well as its enemies, this tool has the capability to compromise the ability for people to practice their freedom of expression and the right to protest.

This is especially a serious problem for environmental and Indigenous groups, among many others, who are less than pleased with the status quo and already deemed ‘threats’ by the Harper government.

And we should be suspicious of this mass data-gathering, for only 0.0001 per cent of it has been useful for the spy agencies. In the linked documents, the operators even make jokes that their servers are being closed by Glee episodes.

So what can we do to ensure our privacy?

There are a number of programs out there, such as the Tor browser, which provide additional layers of security and encryption for the average user. This obscures web traffic, causing it to appear to an eavesdropper as a meaningless sequence of characters.

Even the software giants such as Facebook and Google are offering encrypted messaging for their mobile devices in the wake of the initial scandals surrounding the NSA.

However, even these methods are just relatively more secure, in that information can still be discovered through additional computational effort or through subpoenas on the companies holding the information.

The only clear solution is political: we must demand our freedom and our privacy, and we must not be swayed by the sensationalism which arises after genuine acts of terrorism.

The government is an institution designed to protect the interests of the populace; we cannot afford to sacrifice these interests to our fear, to forfeit the uncertainty that accompanies freedom for the illusion of safety.  

With the election approaching on the horizon, we should seize the opportunity to vote out the Harper government which is poisoning the natural and social environment of this nation in order to feed the great machine of profit.

In the meantime, you can contribute to keeping Canada private by signing the OpenMedia petition


John Saigle is a freelance writer and programmer, and serves as the Editor-in-chief for Graphite Publications. 

Photo: flickr/Corey Burger