NSA Internet surveillance: where is the outrage?


In my last post I discussed how, with the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program, the United States has likely unilaterally killed the Internet as we know it.

It didn’t have to happen. There were a series of events that led to us getting to a point where a democratic government – the self-professed leader of the free world – feels it can carry out activities like this with impunity.

The Internet is a new entity. From a public policy and legislative perspective, we’re just figuring it out. In Canada, we’re struggling with how to deal with cyber-bullying and globally we’re redefining copyright in light of the Internet. In terms of a disruptive technology, the Internet is about as big as it gets. That said, there are some activities for which there is offline precedence, and I think most of us would argue that surveillance is one of those activities.

Governments – even transparent, democratic ones – have always engaged in surveillance activities. They are sometimes an unfortunate necessity to maintain law and order. However, wiretaps have had a high degree of judicial oversight. In Canada, police need to meet a higher standard to obtain a wiretap warrant than a regular warrant. It’s the same for opening a private citizen’s mail, and for a host of other surveillance techniques.

And as a society, we have long recognized the seriousness of these activities.

In fact, outrage at RCMP activities in the 1970s, including unauthorized mail openings and electronic surveillance without warrants, resulted in the Royal Commission into Certain Activities of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (the MacDonald Commission), and ultimately the creation of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).

It’s not long ago that, in the west at least, we found this type of activity so repugnant that we were willing to go to war over it. Stasi-like surveillance, and what it meant for personal freedom, was at the core of the Cold War. It was, in essence, a conflict fought over the level of state control over an individual’s freedom.

Now, we seem complacent in government monitoring of our activities, even if it is Stasi-like.

The fact is we know that the NSA is copying virtually every message sent from the U.S. to anywhere overseas. Cell phone data, Facebook updates, Google searches, emails – pretty much all communications – are tracked and stored by the U.S. government. And in case you thought you were safe because you’re Canadian, if you use any of these services your data is tracked and stored even if you reside in Canada. Social networking sites like Facebook store users’ data on servers in the U.S., and much of Canada’s Internet traffic transits through the U.S. even if the final destination is elsewhere (this is something CIRA has been actively working to change – see this).

Let me be clear about one thing. It’s not that governments should not have the power to monitor citizens under certain circumstances and with the appropriate oversight – it’s an unfortunate necessity to maintain law and order. But we’re not talking about surveillance with appropriate oversight. We’re talking about an opaque and deliberate system to gather and monitor the activities and communications of potentially everyone who is online.

Why should a government feel it is above judicial oversight to monitor its citizens’ activities, just because they’re online?

Because apparently, we’re fine with it. At the very least, we’re complacent with it.

I could write an entire post about why we should care, but others have already done so, and the reasons are both many and compelling.

Not only should we care, in my opinion we should be outraged.

Is it that we don’t care, or that we don’t understand, or has our moral compass shifted enough in the past two decades that we’re now okay with governments tracking our every move?

I’d like to hear your thoughts – why do we seem so complacent with government surveillance?

In my next post, I’ll discuss the research we carried out with Ipsos Reid to better understand what Canadians think about the PRISM program, and governments monitoring their online activities.

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  • http://votermedia.blogspot.ca/search/label/CIRA Mark Latham

    Thank you Byron for taking a strong public stand on this important issue!
    As you know from our previous discussions, I work on governance reform of large organizations, including democracies, corporations, co-ops, and nonprofit membership organizations like CIRA. That work gives me a perspective on the key question you raise, of why most people don’t seem to care enough about government surveillance to step up and do more to oppose it.
    There are many factors involved, but the critical factor that we can change is the lack of professional information systems loyal to voters’ collective (public) interests. Creating such systems would help us voters understand what is in our best interests, and how to vote accordingly — see Experiments in Voter Funded Media at http://votermedia.org/publications
    With better information systems, we voters would be able to elect better leaders and hold them accountable, even though most of us are too busy to research the issues ourselves. Until then, we remain at the mercy of governance structures that disempower us, like CIRA’s director elections where the incumbent board’s appointees control nominations for 3/4 of the elected seats — see http://votermedia.blogspot.ca/search/label/CIRA

  • Ozy3

    We’re complacent because we’re a complacent people. We’ll accept any acts by authority figures as long as we can complain about it without being required to do anything about it, and as long as it doesn’t interfere with hockey programming on TV.
    Look, even Harper wondered back when he was in Opposition if Canadians ever get upset about anything. If Martin had ignored the Adscam complaints, and never established the Gomery Inquiry, we’d still be under a Liberal government. But he made the mistake of doing something about the complaints and basically threw himself out of office, allowing Harper to step in with the knowledge that anything is permissible to authority figures as long as taking action seems to difficult to the public.
    So, we’ve expressed outrage but then forgotten about all of Harper’s actions, including possible war crimes committed against Afghan detainees; the torture and incarceration of a 15 year old Canadian child with grown men in a torture camp for almost a decade, despite the Supreme Court’s finding that the government was complicit in his torture and pleas to repatriate him; unaccountable punishment of organizations whose ideologies clash with this government’s personal views through “de-funding” of tax payer money (Kairos and Rights & Democracy, et al); destruction of the long form census which would have shown how the interests of the top 1% richest Canadians are reflected in the policies of this country over the interests of the remaining 99% (i.e. would have proven the existence of a plutocracy rather than a democracy); linking international aid to profits of mining and resource extraction companies, as if suffering can only be alleviated for those who can pay for their basic human rights; destruction of our foreign policy and reputation in order to serve only Tory ideological purposes (loss of UNSC election, loss of access to Camp Mirage, withdrawal from Kyoto, blindly supporting Israel no matter what it does (e.g. supporting its 2009 attack on Gaza which only 6 other countries supported and 145 countries (including almost all of Europe) condemned, etc); abuse of law for personal vendettas (Jason Kenney’s spokesman fabricating claims of terrorism against George Galloway to keep him out of Canada (see Justice Mosley’s decision at the Federal Court)); ignoring the only Contempt of Parliament decision in history to which Harper shrugged and said, “you win some, you lose some”; forgetting Baird’s lies to Parliament to secure $83 million for border infrastructure but of which $50 million went to Tony Clement for the G8 Summit; forgetting Tony Clement’s abuse of G8 funds for his personal re-election purposes (where is that RCMP inquiry?); ignoring the promises to reform the Senate and allowing the largest stacking of that body with partisan cronies in history; abuse of prorogation powers repeatedly without consequence, and so on and on.
    Lack of reaction to the PRISM program and acquiescence to authority is normal when you look at the Canadian public’s behaviour over the past 8 years or so, including rendition of Canadians to Syria by RCMP for torture. ( In case you’re wondering, RCMP Commissioner Zaccardelli who authorized Maher Arar’s rendition to torture was given the Legion d’Honneur by the French for his actions and became a senior officer of Interpol.)
    Given this track record, you should *expect* Canadians to welcome oversight and intrusion of their lives by their authority figures. As long as it doesn’t interfere with hockey programming, of course.

  • Pete McPhedran

    I think there has been little to no reaction for a multitude of reasons, some of which I agree with @Ozy3 on, some not so much.

    The biggest reasons, I believe, are; The fact that this data was released in the summer months, people are on vacation and simply doing other things; A lot of people do not really understand the impact or the depth of which this surveillance has gone. Tack on to this that many people don’t really care, are fine with it, as they do not have anything to hide and it *appears* that the Government is trying to catch terrorists; Lastly, coming from someone that does care, we have no idea of whom to complain to. Parliament is on vacation now into October, it’s not an election year and really, would some of our MP’s a) Care or worse yet b) Understand the implications?

    With the exception of these blog posts, they very few articles I’ve seen written by Canadian journalists seem to take the approach that this is good and we should be happy our American cousins are taking the lead on keeping the World a safer place.

    Has anyone actually asked the PM what Canada’s involvement has been? Are Canadian companies participating in the way that we understand from the leaks that American Companies are? I know we don’t have FISA, so Canadian companies don’t have to worry about saying what they are doing and being prosecuted for it, but do we have other laws like this?

    I own an Internet hosting company and I can tell you we are not knowingly involved or participating like the companies that have been named. Of course we are a mere fraction of a fraction of the size of these companies. However, is my Internet connection being sniffed at my upstream (American owned) provider?


  • Travis

    I have asked many people that i know and even more people in online forums the question: Do you
    approve government or law inforcement watching your online activity if it means protecting us from terrorism?

    The reasons vary however the answer in every single case has been: ” NO, i do not want the government or law enforcement watching my online activity for any reason”

    So now MY question is to this site: Who did you pole to find your information? I dont know a single person who is even remotely concerned with terrorists. Instead everyone that i spoke to is confussed as to what a terrorist is. Some are concerned that a terrorist is defined as anybody or group that apposes government or law enforcement. If that is the case then I am sure that nobody would approve of the government or law enforcement watching citizens online activity, if it meant they can no longer voice their disapproval of government or law enforcement without being profiled or even possibly pursecuted by a government establishment that uses law enforcment to spy on those that might threaten their continuity of government.

    The majority of the people i speak with do not understand the need for government and their protection of central banks as well as the taxes that are stolen from Canadian citezens in order to pay for it all.

    Your pole seems out of touch with reality.

  • http://www.science.ca Bshell

    Byron, this series of articles on Snowden’s revelations and what they mean are excellent. Thanks for doing this. Now, the next step is for CIRA to take some significant action about it. Your blog is a great first step. I’d like to see a formal study, a white paper or something, and a formal presentation to the Prime Minister’s Office and to the Canadian Parliament, coupled with a press release to the media. This would be one excellent function that CIRA might perform with all our excess millions of dollars in the bank.

    I’d also like to echo Mark Latham’s comment above. The key explanation for why people are complacent is that people are not in the know. The reason for this is that the media does not tell us. I get the Globe and Mail every day and they are owned and operated by BCE (the huge Bell megacorporation multinational). They’re main goal (it seems) is to serve their own interests, not the public interest. Newspapers are now all about how to make people into better consumers. It’s all about marketing, with very little information about what’s truly going on in the world. The best reporting on the PRISM thing and Snowden’s heroic efforts so far has been from the Guardian in England. Mark makes the point that the situation can be fixed with systems that are similar to the kind of thing you like so much: a sort of multi-stakeholder democratic model, but applied to communications. Mark has a way of doing this with news. If you want to put your “actions” where you mouth is, why don’t you invite Mark to CIRA this year and let him explain his system to your communications staff, then give it a try for one or two years in CIRA’s own election process, and for that matter, in CIRA’s communications in general. I’d rather see money going toward this (and we’re not talking very much money) than toward the current “state controlled” communication system, which does not tell us very much about what is going on at CIRA.

    Bottom line: if you want to fix the situation (i.e. give people a chance to be outraged) start at home. Implement home-grown democratic communications of the type that Mark Latham is proposing. Actions speak louder than words.

  • Ozy3

    Actually, Byron is in a unique position to expose such ridiculous over-reaching of government surveillance within it’s alleged role of protecting the public from security threats (for e.g., see his remarks in http://www.intgovforum.org/cms/igf_initiatives_reports/Canada-IGF.pdf), as has been evidenced by numerous international measures undertaken by major governments. I’m sure Byron is fully aware of the move at the ITU to create an international framework by which governments are trying to monitor and control access to the Internet in the name of protecting their countries from cyber attacks. Some of those initiatives are available at: http://www.itu.int/osg/csd/intgov/ In addition, the Budapest Convention lays down guidelines for dealing with cybercrime issues (http://conventions.coe.int/Treaty/Commun/QueVoulezVous.asp?NT=185&CL=ENG) which Canada has signed but not ratified. Finally, there is a big push by Russia and China to create a “code of conduct” on how governments will act if there is a cyberattack on a country that could equal the damage caused by an armed attack, leading to a launch of armed conflict. This type of cyberwar is being discussed seriously at international fora (http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/138443/brandon-valeriano-and-ryan-maness/the-fog-of-cyberwar), indicating a push to legitimate kinetic warfare as a means of self-defence in response to a cyber attack. Hence, when cyber attacks rose in prevalence in the last 6 years (www.ccdcoe.org/publications/books/legalconsiderations.pdf), culminating in the Stuxnet and Flame attacks on Iran, governments stepped up the rhetoric on creating defence mechanisms, which can easily justify the creation of surveillance networks like PRISM, if the public is paranoid enough.

    But is that a genuine response to a plausible threat? Not really, when you consider that the PRISM approach is based on the logic that offence is the best kind of defence. If we believe that we have to live in a perpetual state of warfare in order to prevent war, then we have no benefit from not going to war. If our rights and liberties are constantly suspended because of potential threat of attack, and we have to keep launching attacks to prevent future attacks, then we never benefit from peacetime and are just belligerents-in-waiting with no real constitutional protections.

    My fear and anger at the Canadian public’s approach of “wait and see because the government knows what’s best for us” is premised on the following brilliant but terrifying speech given recently by Noam Chomsky at a conference in Bonn: http://www.alternet.org/visions/chomsky-us-poses-number-threats-future-humanity-our-youll-never-hear-about-it-our-free-press

    Please take the time to read Chomsky’s thoughts. Ultimately, if modern democratic government can do whatever they want, notwithstanding the interests of the people or the promises they make during election campaigns (Harper to create transparent government, Obama to shut Gitmo, etc), then we’re facing a problem much bigger than just internet surveillance and intrusive monitoring.

  • http:amendpc.ca Amend

    Not sure about others but my business is to keep up with current security issues and have posted my view since it first broke out in June. To be honest this has made me so angry and disgusted I have turned my shop into opensource only shop. Dropped my Google and Bing webmaster accounts just the other day and have started posting again about this subject.
    I have turned my back on Microsoft and Google forever. The others I never had any accounts with because I have never trusted the Internet simply because I am the guy who watches the firewall logs on a almost daily basis. Does not take very long to get the view of trust nothing concerning the web. To be honest here most users have no clue to what is going on with APT1 or NSA or even the basics of online security.
    I am an admin for a school and trust me when I say trying to get people to be more security minded is frustrating at best.
    I was absent from the blog section of my business for 3 months after reading solid reporting about Edward Snowden. Has taken me this long to cool down enough just to write calmly enough with out blasting IT dribble at the world for being so spineless and allowing this to go on. Angry? You bet. This is a blow to my business. Encryption standards being lowered, vulnerabilities being introduced for NSA purposes, back doors built in and on it goes.
    IT security is now a joke and impossible to even know what hardware and software to trust. I can see the writing on the wall. This is just getting started. It is all downhill from here. This generation better fight for our privacy or lose it.
    Sorry but for security minded folks out there the “if you have nothing to hide why worry” line does not cut it. Lets face it Edward got out with massive amounts of data and do you really think the hackers holy grail out in the middle of Utah is 100% secure from hackers seeking its riches. I am just thankful that Edward was honest enough to go to the press and not the highest bidder. They would not have known the documents were even missing unless Edward had stood up and risked his future for the greater good. Trouble is he may not have been the first and he will not be the last. Will the next guy be as high a caliber as Edward. Will you let your children’s children lose their privacy just because you don’t care enough to fight for them. Stand up and be heard or forever keep your mouth shut. Germans know only too well the slippery slope this actually is. Your ancestors died in the mud for your freedoms and privacy is freedom. As the poem says “if ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep”.

  • The Pawlowski

    Byron, your comments resonate strongly with me. I am a candidate for a Master’s in International Public Policy degree at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Ontario and I have found your posts very helpful in familiarizing myself with privacy of personal data and internet governance in the Canadian context. I imagine your continuing posts will be helpful in informing my partnered research with the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

  • click_wrrrrr

    Though I previously would have agreed with your stance, and to a degree i do see the invasive nature of surveillance of any kind, have in recent years, moved to the side of monitoring as a norm and not an exception.

    Unfortunately, Canada is one of those nations – though not a breeding ground for terrorism, or criminal activity, is a way station for both of those realities.

    We live in a different world. General algorithmic monitoring of keywords and phrases, including and not excluding cipher style keywords and phrases, is wholly acceptable to me. As well, unfortunately, Canadian hosting, domain support, and registrar providers, both for HSP, and ASP aren’t evolved or sufficient in their manner of customer security or service.

    Including and not excluding our Federal and Provincial governments. As I have access to various points within our government, from a technical stand point, they have clearly stated that the Canadian servers, which support, house and manage government documents, emails, etc, aren’t secure at all, and have been hacked internally and externally on a daily basis.

    So though we have organizations such as CIRA and TRASK which congregate regularly to discuss the scene of technology, security and internet in Canada, to me they seem to be an exercise in self importance, without any real desire to solve or move toward solutions which would give us a greater control of our sections of the internet itself.

    We as Canadians are brilliant at bureaucracy, and deliberation yet slow on action or solution providing. We need to realize we live in a changing world and our methods and properties need to evolve and activate at the same rate as that of the world in which we live.

    Terrorism is a reality. Crime is a reality. Our underground economy can pay our GNP twice over, yet nothing is done here to stem the flow of funds out of the societal norms, away from the underground economy. Nor do we have invasive methodologies to monitor transferring funds, or tracking communiques to and from our citizenry.

    Also, to further confound the issue, lets not forget that it is our own government whom has commissioned the US government to monitor our citizenry. We truly and actually do pay America to monitor Canadians, and have given up the control of our own citizenry to that of a foreign nation.

    So be upset at the NSA all you like. It isn’t their issue. It’s our problem that our own government has opted to pass the responsibility, garnering these results, against it’s own citizenry.

    Point the blame back at ourselves. Not the neighbors to the south