Canada’s privacy watchdogs silent on NSA program that could be violating the rights of millions
Government agencies tasked with protecting Canadian’s privacy are refusing to speak on the U.S. government's newly revealed surveillance operations.
The Obama administration has been widely condemned for collecting data on millions of people around the world.
However, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada and the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for British Columbia declined to answer questions about how the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) could be violating the rights of Canadians.
The Canadian Security Intelligence Service did not respond to an interview request by deadline.
Meanwhile, privacy advocates and data watchdogs such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation have warned it is “without a doubt” the NSA is collecting massive amounts of data about Canadian citizens.
On June 6, the Washington Post and Guardian newspapers revealed that an NSA surveillance program named PRISM is being used to collect user data from several of the largest service providers on the Internet.
For several years, the NSA has had direct access to servers operated by Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple. That provides the NSA with access to poplar communication services such as Gmail, Hotmail, and Skype. The U.S. government has been collecting emails, chat logs, videos, photographs, documents, and social network details, among other categories of data.
“They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type,” reads a quote attributed to the U.S. intelligence officer who leaked the information to the Post.
All nine companies named in the leaked NSA documents have issued statements denying cooperating with the NSA, and gone further to claim they had no knowledge of PRISM’s existence until it was reported on by the media.
U.S. President Barack Obama was steadfast in his defence of the intelligence programs, which go far beyond the scope of any previous surveillance activities in the country’s history, especially in terms of domestic spying.
He acknowledged PRISM’s existence, but stressed that it was approved by Congress, and is being used to target foreigners, not residents of the United States.
Privacy watchdogs and advocates for Internet users are warning that the data of millions of Canadians is likely being swept up in PRISM’s “dragnet” approach to intelligence gathering.
“In all likelihood, the NSA has what amounts to a comprehensive dossier on every Canadian who uses any of these services,” said Nate Cardozo, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
He emphasized that the PRISM program should be especially troubling to Canadians, because the U.S. government does not apply the same privacy safeguards to data on non-U.S. citizens that it does to information about Americans.
“Under the law that we understand is being used to justify this program, which is section 702 of FISA, no legal protections whatsoever are being afforded to the data of non-U.S. persons,” Cardozo explained.
He also called attention to the historically close relationship between U.S. and Canadian intelligence agencies, noting that it would not be out of the ordinary for Canadian spies to have some level of access to the data being collected by PRISM. (The Guardian has already reported that the NSA’s counterpart in the United Kingdom, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), has been using PRISM to gathering intelligence on British citizens.)
In the same 24-hour period that news of PRISM broke, the Guardian and then the Wall Street Journal reported that the NSA has been monitoring customer records and collecting metadata from all major telecommunications providers in the United States. “The arrangement with Verizon, AT&T and Sprint, the country's three largest phone companies means, that every time the majority of Americans makes a call, NSA gets a record of the location, the number called, the time of the call and the length of the conversation,” the Journal wrote.
Micheal Vonn, policy director for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, told the Straight that the degree to which U.S. and Canadian telecommunications infrastructures are enmeshed, combined with the popularity of the online services tapped by the NSA, means Canadians are directly affected by the PRISM program.
“The ramifications of this are so vast it is hard to even know where to begin,” she said. “We’re getting to the place, honestly, where it’s ludicrous to talk about paranoia. There are no [conspiracy] theories, there are only facts.”
Vonn recounted how the U.S. government devotes “special attention” to Canada on account of the border it shares with the United States.
“This is not targeted surveillance, where there is a reason to be suspicious about something and so you look into x, y, and z,” she said. “‘This is population-based dragnet surveillance.”
Cara McGregor, communications officer for the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for British Columbia, referred the Straight’s request for an interview to his counterpart at the federal level.
At the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, communications officer Scott Hutchison responded with an email stating that a representative would not be made available for an interview.
“Based on the limited information we have, it is difficult to assess the merit of the allegations and how American law may apply to the situation,” Hutchinson wrote. “Going forward, we plan to express our concerns to and seek information from the Commissioner of the Communication Security Establishment to determine how the personal information of Canadians may be affected.”
A June 7 headline at OpenMedia.ca states: “Canadians deserve to know if U.S. federal agencies are blanket-monitoring their communications.”
Lindsey Pinto, OpenMedia.ca’s communications manager, said that at this point, they have more questions than reactions to the news. “We should definitely be looking to our government to be making a commitment to protect our privacy,” she said in a telephone interview.
Pinto added that it’s unknown whether or not Canadian intelligence agencies have any involvement with the NSA’s PRISM program.
“We would like the government to come clean on whether or not they do,” she said.
“Tech Companies Concede to Surveillance Program,” published on June 7, 2013, at the New York Times.
“Few options for companies to defy U.S. intelligence demands,” published on June 8, 2013, at Reuters.
“Boundless Informant: the NSA's secret tool to track global surveillance data,” published on June 9, 2013, at the Guardian.
“Edward Snowden: the whistleblower behind the NSA surveillance revelations,” published on June 9, 2013, at the Guardian.
“Data-collection program got green light from MacKay in 2011,” published on June 10, 2013, at the Globe and Mail.