Highlights from CANADALAND #25: How Canada’s Spies Game the Media

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Your government is spying on you. Your mobile carrier is spying on you as well. If you live in the United States this is not news—what I mean is, citizens of the U.S. have known about government spying for quite some time. Here in Canada we now know, thanks also to leaks by Edward Snowden, that our spy agency CSEC has—at the very least—colluded with the NSA and snooped on travellers at a major Canadian airport.

Yet Canadians don’t seem to care much.  The Globe and Mail reported that the revelations have been largely greeted with yawns. Why is that?

It’s not you, it’s media.

That’s the premise of the latest CANADALAND podcast from Jesse Brown. It’s probably the best half hour-plus of high-level discussion on government spying that I’ve heard to date, and it’s particularly insightful for mobile phone users. If the few choice quotes that follow get you to have a listen then I’ll consider this plug a success.

Disclosure

I’m trying as best I can to stick to the facts. If you detect any bias here it may have something to do with my volunteer work at Open Media, a non-profit digital rights advocacy group based out of Vancouver. You can check out their Protect Our Privacy campaign if you like…

Metadata is Data

So the information that CSEC and your carrier are allegedly collecting is not your phone calls emails and texts but rather information about that data—what number was dialled, who an email was sent to, where a text was sent from, that sort of thing. Any claim to this information being benign is quickly and effectively debunked by Jesse when he says:

If a private eye in the ’40s were to follow you to a payphone, look through binoculars at what number you dialled, write down how long the call was and then follow you to the next place you could say: “Well I wasn’t spying on him… I didn’t hear the conversation.”

I think most of us would be like: “Yeah, that’s bullshit. You were spying on me.”

Obfuscatory

My favourite noun is also an adjective? Cool!

Guest Colin Freeze says that a big challenge with reporting on CSEC is their lack of clarity in statements to the press. The agency tosses out ominous-sounding words like “collect”, “target”, “track” and “communications” without ever defining the scope of these activities.

Jesse wonders if the press unwittingly does CSEC a favour by falling into the trap of using their language rather than plain English in their reporting.

Carrier Complicity

Curve ball time: I’ve been sitting on a post from The Citizen Lab; it’s about an inquiry sent to Canada’s wireless carriers as to the surveillance of their customers and disclosure of collected data to government. That post is cited in this CANADALAND episode and is also worthy of your time. In a nutshell:

For almost all questions, it seems, companies are unwilling to assert whether they cannot or will not respond; instead, they have deliberately left unclear whether they are legally barred from providing responses to specific questions or have simply decided that they would prefer not to respond to these questions.

Lest you think such activities are limited to The Big Three, consider this from Colin Freeze:

If companies want cell phone licenses then they have to play ball with basic surveillance capabilities […] This was hashed out in a secret gentlemen’s agreement twenty years ago through a regulatory process, and was never law.

The Bright Side

According to Jesse, our best hope for learning more about carrier and government spying may lie in the unfortunate fact that our government hasn’t the greatest track record at securing data held in their possession. Ouch.

Once again I’ll invite you to check out the episode at your leisure. If you want to discuss it here after you’ve had a listen, please do!