Cyberspace expert Ron Deibert raises the alarm on government surveillance in Canada

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There are few civilians in Canada that know as much about the Internet and government surveillance as Ron Deibert, but even he was surprised by some of the information that former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden leaked in 2013.

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“It was the audacity of some of it that caught me by surprise,” Deibert told the Straight in a telephone interview. “I knew about far-reaching surveillance programs, I strongly suspected that most major telecommunications companies were coopted under national security laws to share information, and I was certainly aware of the tapping of fibre optic cables—backdoors—into software and other infrastructure. But the sheer audacity of it….It’s the scale of it that is quite remarkable.”

Deibert is the director of the Canada Centre for Global Security Studies at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. His latest book, Black Code: Surveillance, Privacy, and the Dark Side of the Internet, is a bestseller that was long-listed for the 2014 B.C. National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction. His work with Citizen Lab and other research groups is credited with revealing cyberespionage networks that infected computers in more than 100 countries.

On January 23, Deibert is scheduled to speak at the University of British Columbia at an event titled “Cyber Swarming: distributed counter intelligence and surveillance as global civil security”.

On the phone from Toronto, Deibert questioned why people aren’t more alarmed about the extent of domestic spying that is happening in Canada today.

He explained that there are two key differences between American and Canadian spying. The first is that the public actually knows a lot more about the Obama administration’s surveillance programs than it does about those of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The second is that while the American intelligence apparatus has largely sidestepped its checks and balances, the NSA is still on a shorter leash than Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), an agency that many Canadians have never even heard of.

“We have very little oversight—any meaningful oversight, really—here in this country relative to that which exists in the United States,” Deibert said. “No oversight to speak of, a confusing and contradictory mandate for an organization that operates in the shadows, and what little we know that has come to light suggests that they actually are spying on Canadians.”

A new headquarters for Canada's top-secret spy agency is under construction in suburban Ottawa at an estimated cost of $1.2 billion.
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Deibert said that he’s puzzled as to why Canadians have expressed alarm about spying activities south of the border while remaining relatively quiet about those programs’ counterparts in Canada, where the situation is in many ways worse.

“There has really been no public discussion,” he said. “Unless there is going to be some kind of huge revelation that is going to emerge, we’ll probably just keep muddling along like this, which is quite sad. I think it will be to our ruin, in the long run.”

Taking a step back, Deibert described how the rapid growth of online services has occurred alongside the expansion of government monitoring capabilities to allow powerful actors to subvert the intended nature of the Internet and turn it into a tool for mass surveillance.

“Social media, cloud computing, and mobile connectivity. Those three together are fundamentally transformative in one very important respect: that is, the amount of data that used to be stored in our desktops, our filing cabinets, and inside our heads, to some degree, is now shared with third parties. This is fundamentally transformative in terms of, not just privacy, but social relations in general and the relations between citizens and the state," Deibert said.

“You have this huge ether of personal data—an ecosystem—that exists separate from us, that is highly revealing about our preferences, our social networks, our habits, our relationships, our movements,” he continued. “And this is happening at the very same time that some of the world’s most secretive agencies—agencies that are appendages of the state—are being empowered to secure this domain.”

Deibert argued that we are already seeing the “symptoms” of a lack of ethical leadership in cyberspace. He pointed to Canadian companies profiting from government oppression.

In Pakistan, for example, software provided by a Canadian company called Netsweeper is used to block YouTube and filter news and information about such topics as gay rights and LGBT issues, Deibert said. He also expressed concern for Canadian software called Sandvine that Moscow may be using to monitor dissent in Russia.

“Those are the type of things that will emerge in the absence of leadership, and I think that needs to change,” he said. “We should be making this argument forcefully, that we will not tolerate the carving up of cyberspace into national domains of censorship and surveillance.”

Deibert dismissed defences of state surveillance that rely on the argument that people who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear.

“This is about what will happen if somebody in a position of power has no limitation with what they can do with the data they collect on citizens,” he said. “It’s possible the machinery of government could be usurped, perverted, and subverted for partial ends, and that is what we have to worry about.”

Ron Deibert is scheduled to speak at UBC’s Cecil Green Park House (6251 Cecil Green Park Road, Vancouver) on Thursday (January 23) at 5 p.m.

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