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.
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.