On January 18, 2012, some of the most heavily trafficked websites on the Internet went dark. Wikipedia temporarily replaced its home page with a message asking people to imagine a world without free knowledge. Google placed a censor bar over its logo.
The protest successfully halted U.S. legislation that critics argued could have devastated the open nature of the Internet.
Now, many of that event’s organizers have designated February 11 “The Day We Fight Back”, an international demonstration against dragnet domestic spying.
“People here in Canada, in the U.S., and right around the world will be taking action that day to protest government surveillance and to call for much stronger privacy protections for citizens,” said David Christopher, spokesperson for the Vancouver-based OpenMedia.ca.
In a telephone interview, he explained that there will be a push to share information about government abuses revealed by former U.S. security contractor Edward Snowden. The Protect Our Privacy Coalition—an umbrella group founded in Vancouver in October 2013—will also launch a website aimed at making it easier for people to share privacy concerns with their elected representatives.
Christopher argued that there is a growing list of revelations about which the public deserves answers. The most recent, he said, is a January 30 CBC News report that Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) used airport Wi-Fi networks to track the electronic devices of thousands of airline passengers.
February 11 is also the day that the Canadian government presents its budget for the next fiscal year, Christopher noted, so protest organizers will also raise questions about the speed with which the country’s security-establishment budgets have ballooned in recent years.
“Taxpayers are on the hook for $4.2 billion for CSEC’s new spy palace in Ottawa,” he said. “What else could that money be spent on? I think that most people would say that building a big surveillance apparatus for spying on us is an inappropriate use of public funds.”
Christopher spoke to the Straight on February 3 while, in Ottawa, CSEC chief John Foster and Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) director Michel Coulombe appeared before the Senate committee on national defence and security.
Christopher called the calibre of questions senators asked “pretty disappointing”, adding, “It hasn’t exactly been the grilling that I think people were hoping for.”
That sentiment was echoed by Joyce Murray, Liberal MP for Vancouver Quadra, who on January 31 called for an independent review of CSEC activities.
She told the Straight that although there is a CSEC commissioner tasked with ensuring compliance with the law, that individual is selected by the minister of national defence, who is appointed by the prime minister.
“There is, essentially, no independent accountability for reviewing these activities,” Murray said. “So I’m calling for an immediate, thorough, and independent review…because it is not enough for them to say, ‘Trust us; everything is okay.’ ”
Shortly before Murray spoke to the Straight, Stephen Rigby, national security adviser to the prime minister, told the Senate committee that he was “not totally persuaded [CSEC] has tapped into airport Wi-Fi”, and he also claimed that program was “legal and appropriate”.
CSEC is officially a foreign-intelligence agency forbidden to spy on Canadians. Concerns that it has been doing just that have prompted a lawsuit filed by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.
BCCLA spokesperson Charlotte Kingston told the Straight that her take on the February 3 hearing was that lawmakers are not sufficiently informed about CSEC activities.
“One thing that has been interesting is watching senators struggle with some of the technical aspects of the work that CSEC does,” Kingston explained. “Parliamentarians don’t actually have enough information right now to be involved in effective oversight.”
She suggested that although in the U.S. public outrage about National Security Agency spying has gotten to a point where the president has been forced to address it, the same has not happened north of the border.
“I think the Canadian conversation about reform around mass surveillance is disappointingly behind that of our American counterparts,” Kingston said. “February 11 is an opportunity for Canadians to show our government that we’re very concerned about how behind we are in enacting reforms and taking action.”