Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Edward Snowden, Bill C-51 and the scary growth of government surveillance

I recently watched the chilling, superb documentary Citizenfour by director Laura Poitras.  The film, which won the Best Documentary Feature award at this year's Academy Awards, chronicles in detail the 2013 interviews by Poitras, Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill with Edward Snowden, the infamous whistle blower.   It also outlines how the National Security Agency (NSA) in the U.S., in cahoots with other world governments and agencies, have expanded their spying to include virtually all human digital communications, not just on those suspected of terrorism. 

The film is must-see for everyone.  I have to admit I didn't fully understand the full extent of Snowden's revelations when they first came to light in June 2013.   I recall the revelations getting a bit blurred in the coverage of the attacks on Snowden's character by the intelligence establishment and his fleeing from authorities to Russia. 

But the film returns the focus back to the secret documents that Snowden revealed which proved the full extent of the NSA's surveillance program, which has grown to intercept virtually all digital communications of Americans and citizens of other countries without any safeguards for privacy rights.   Data of every email, every Google search, every Facebook post, every phone call, every online purchase of virtually every human being they can monitor is being captured using NSA technologies and partnerships with other government's agencies including the Canadian government and is being stored for future reference.   Should governments decide to target anyone, they are able to utilize their vast surveillance archive to retroactively investigate them. 

Essentially, this represents the greatest invasion of privacy in history.

In late 2013, Barton Gellman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who led the Washington Post's coverage of Snowden's disclosures, summarized the Snowden leaks as follows:

"Taken together, the revelations have brought to light a global surveillance system that cast off many of its historical restraints after the attacks of Sept 11, 2001.  Secret legal authorities empowered the NSA to sweep in the telephone, Internet and location records of whole populations."

No doubt, the full implications of these disclosures are still permeating through the public consciousness two years later.  Many people still barely know what Snowden revealed, let alone understand it.  Thus, the vital importance of the film and why it continues to be important to hear from Snowden, as we thankfully continue to do.  

Citizenfour's interviews of Snowden flesh out a man of principle who went to incredible lengths and personal sacrifice to reveal the despicable overreach of his bosses into the lives of all of us. 

Snowden's had some critical things to say about Canada's spying regime and lack of adequate oversight, as well as the Harper government's proposed Bill C-51, which would expand the powers of the Canada's spy agency.

This past weekend saw numerous protests across Canada against Bill C-51.  This follows what seems like plummeting public support for the legislation. 

I've struggled to dissect the implications of Bill C-51, reading both good and bad about it.  Without enhanced oversight provisions, I can't help but be wary of it.   This Walrus article by Craig Forcese and Kent Roach helped me greatly with my understanding.

Justin Trudeau's decision to vote for Bill C-51, despite concerns over the bill's lack of enhanced oversight provisions, puts the Liberal Party too far on the side of the security establishment which clearly has grown too big.  Sure, the Liberals' decision to vote for it is pure politics, in response to the Conservatives' exaggeration of the terrorist threat.  In truth, there's little real difference between the Liberal position and the NDP position on C-51, except for the symbolic votes either for or against the legislation.  Both opposition parties are promising to similarly tinker with the law should either of them form a government.  The Conservatives' majority ensures they can control passage of whatever bill they wish this year.

But we need more than tinkering.  We need more than just a new parliamentary committee to keep an eye on CSIS and other government agencies after the fact (although that would be an improvement).   We need a full-scale, public investigation into this new status quo revealed in Citizenfour and how to roll it back to return some degree of privacy to our lives.  We can't trust Stephen Harper to do that as he probably approves of the NSA's abilities to spy on every Canadian.

The issues raised in Citizenfour and by C-51 are not entirely the same, but clearly they are linked.   They both deal with growing government power snuffing out individual freedoms.   We need to pull back the powers we have handed over to these forces to ensure better balance so we don't continue down this scary road.   If we continue, years from now, we'll all be horrified to see our society transformed into a police state, where lack of privacy and freedom is the norm, not the rare exception.  

The next step in this fight is to create a critical mass of awareness.  Once more and more of the public realizes that their privacy no longer exists, we will hopefully stop giving deference and support to the Harperites of the world and demand our governments roll back surveillance of our lives.   On this issue, I have to admit the NDP has its priorities right.  I can only hope that politicians like Trudeau soon catch up. 

In the mean time, watch Citizenfour and look forward to more films on the subject that can continue to pierce the public's awareness.

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