Privacy watchdogs are warning that with Parliament reconvened on October 16, the Conservative government is poised to revive legislation that will expand surveillance powers and allow authorities to spy on Canadians.
On October 10, more than 20 organizations convened at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Vancouver to launch an umbrella group called the Protect Our Privacy Coalition.
In separate telephone interviews, both Micheal Vonn, policy director for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, and Steve Anderson, executive director for OpenMedia.ca, told the Georgia Straight that there are two specific issues that prompted a diverse assembly to come together.
The first, Vonn said, is signs that Prime Minister Stephen Harper will attempt to implement sections of Bill C-30, the Protecting Children From Internet Predators Act. Commonly known as the online-surveillance bill, the proposed law would have permitted a number of agencies to track an individual’s communications without a warrant. It was met with widespread public opposition and, in February 2013, pronounced dead by then–justice minister Rob Nicholson.
“They have been pushing this agenda for a very long time,” Vonn emphasized. “Every indication of political reality suggests that they’re simply going to try this through another track.”
Vonn said she suspects the Conservatives will use a “reverse omnibus” strategy, breaking apart the text of Bill C-30 and dispersing surveillance powers across a variety of bills.
“You could see different pieces of surveillance and privacy violations stuffed into all kinds of different pieces of legislation,” she warned. “We may see some of those pieces in things like legislation to address cyberbullying…and there are other bills that also present the prospect of having elements of C-30.”
On September 26, Justice Minister Peter MacKay announced that the government would take “holistic” action to address cyberbullying. Vonn said that it is statements like that, combined with Harper’s record on law enforcement, that have privacy advocates concerned.
The Department of Justice did not make a representative available for an interview. In an emailed response, Paloma Aguilar, a spokesperson for the minister, wrote that the government will not introduce measures that provide for the warrantless capture of Canadians’ communications information. (According to media reports, such as a June 12, 2013, article in the Toronto Star, programs relying on the warrantless collection of data have been in place for years.)
OpenMedia’s Anderson told the Straight the second issue that led to the formation of the Protect Our Privacy Coalition was revelations about the extent of spying conducted by Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC). Anderson noted that much of what is known about CSEC was revealed by former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden after Parliament disbanded for the summer. With the legislature having reconvened on October 16, opposition politicians now have their first official opportunity to question Conservative lawmakers about many of the National Security Agency secrets that the now-fugitive Snowden leaked.
“CSEC is spying on people internationally and, it seems very likely, is collecting the information of law-abiding Canadians,” Anderson said in reference to a recent diplomatic spat in which CSEC was accused of spying on Brazil’s ministry of mines and energy.
Anderson noted that although Snowden has begun to expose the extent of clandestine operations conducted by the NSA, there is still very little known about CSEC. However, Anderson argued that the evidence suggests CSEC’s programs likely mirror those of its U.S. counterpart, which is known to have collected the Internet and telecommunications data of millions of Americans.
“It’s clearly out of control,” he said. As an example, Anderson pointed to an October 8 CBC News report on the construction of a new headquarters for CSEC. The story stated that the facility will house the most powerful supercomputer in Canada and that its data centre will use almost as much electricity as the city of Ottawa.
“It’s the most expensive government building in Canadian history,” Anderson emphasized. “They are going to be spending four billion of our tax dollars building and operating this thing [over the next 30 years, according to CBC].”
He speculated that most Canadian taxpayers would be “insulted” to learn that so much money is being spent on a government agency that’s suspected of secretly collecting citizens’ private information.