Government Spying: The Only Surprise Is That We’re Still Surprised


Fool us once? Shame on you. Fool us twice? Shame on all of us.

This shouldn’t be surprising anymore. Ever since Edward Snowden dropped the first privacy bombshell in June of 2013, unrelenting reports of illegal government spying have flooded our networks.

Snowden first released government in June of 2013. Source: The Guardian.
Snowden first released government in June of 2013. Source: The Guardian.

There was Barack Obama’s tapping of German Chancelor Angela Merkel’s phone; there was the NSA’s stealing of Brazilian citizens’ personal information amid economic espionage — not to mention the initial evidence Snowden revealed, showing the US government pilfering the telephone records of tens of millions of its own citizens, including the NSA hacking into the servers of Google and Facebook.

Perhaps the focus on the US government has distracted from the reality that the epidemic extends beyond any border. Though the regime Obama oversees is the largest — and arguably most powerful — in the world, it isn’t unique; governments everywhere are guilty of undermining our right to privacy — and Canada recently received an up-close taste of the hypocrisy.

Late last week the CBC, through its work with journalist Glen Greenwald, reported that the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) tracked thousands of travelers within Canada, stealing personal information via the free Wi-Fi of an unidentified Canadian airport. The report, which is based off of another document released by Snowden, claims the Canadian spy agency collected data from the smartphones, laptops, and tablets of passengers over a two week period in 2012.

After lifting the information, the passengers were government property.

Thousands had their personal information stolen at a Canadian airport. Source: Toronto Star.
Thousands had their personal information stolen at a Canadian airport. Source: Toronto Star.

Everywhere they went for the week that followed CSEC knew about. At every Wi-Fi hotspot — whether restaurant, café, hotel, home, etc. — the government documented their activities. Going even further, the technology was so proficient that it was able to go back in time to access information about passengers’ positions even before they initially arrived at the airport.

The worst part may be that neither the CSEC nor anyone in parliament have denied it; and they’ve had the audacity to justify it.

Defense Minister Rob Nicholson did not refute the report when provided the opportunity to do so. Further pushing comprehension boundaries — and providing a moment that nobody still quite understands — parliamentary secretary to the prime minister, Paul Calandra, in lashing out against the CBC and Greenwald offered this: “Why is furthering porn-spy Glenn Greenwald’s agenda and lining his Brazilian bank account more important than maintaining the public broadcaster’s journalistic integrity?”

Feel free to offer interpretations.

The CBC labelled it “almost certainly illegal” — while Canadian law clearly states the CSEC cannot target Canadians, or anyone in Canada, without a warrant. A CSEC spokesperson grasped at straws in stating the government is merely analyzing the metadata it acquired from the individuals, and not the contents of what they collected.

The reality is it doesn’t matter. Any justification the government can offer in this case is an argument in semantics. An action may or may not be illegal based on a law the government itself enacted? That isn’t any form of validation. The truth is the government violated not only the right to privacy of its own citizens, as well as those of citizens of other countries, but committed and endorsed actions more akin to authoritarian and oppressive states.

This also isn’t the first time that CSEC has been in hot water. If we just consider recent occurrences, the agency was slammed by federal courts in December for deliberately withholding information from the courts in order to get warrants. In October, the organization was forced to defend its actions, after Brazil discovered Canada had been illegally spying on their government.

The underlying theme of the CBC report is that spying in Canada isn’t new. But what Canadians aren’t accustomed to is hearing about it happening domestically — at least by their own government. Presence by the United States is commonplace, and Canadians have long seen their government cave to US pressure.

FATCA, the US Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act that compels foreign financial institutions to report to the IRS —  which may be the most overt form of public monitoring — goes into effect on July 1, and Canada is bending over backwards to fall in line. During the G8 and G20 summits in and around Toronto in 2010, the Canadian federal government not only knew about US spying on Canadian soil, they allowed it.

Worse, another document released by Snowden showed that CSEC actually set up covert spying stations around the world, at the orders of the NSA, to spy on US trading partners — and it has done so for decades.

If there is a genuinely unexpected aspect to Canada’s recent scandal, it is that Canadian government agents actually made the decision to do something of this nature on their own. What shouldn’t be surprising anymore, though, is any new report of invasive state monitoring.

Fool us again? The only foolish thing would be to believe governments will start respecting our privacy.

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