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I Spy With My Little Eye: Should Canadians Care About Surveillance?

This is a guest post by Michael Harris, writer, journalist and documentary maker.

According to the pollsters at Ipsos-Reid, about half of all Canadians don’t care if their own government is spying on them through CSEC, Canada’s national cryptologic agency.

A whopping 77 per cent of us apparently actively support such spying when it is justified by the claim that it helps prevent terrorist attacks. So the message to government is that to get buy-in from three-quarters of Canadians on gross violations of privacy, simply play the terrorist card.

(The fact that we are spying on an ally, Brazil, has sparked less public interest than Vanity Fair’s upcoming tongue-wagger on Gwyneth Paltrow.)

There are two problems with our laissez-faire attitude about the government listening in. None of us will ever be able to check the claims of the authorities when they say they acted in the interests of national security – it’s classified; and governments routinely lie about alleged security threats to get around the messy business of defending the indefensible in public.

I wonder how many people have stopped to think about the predatory menace of big governments that want to get even bigger. In the U.K., for example, look what has happened in the wake of the phone-hacking affair.

A Rupert Murdoch newspaper closed, huge fines and settlements were paid, and people went to jail. That’s what happens when you violate peoples’ privacy rights and break the law; rightly so. But politicians, who dislike the media the way our esteemed prime minister does, have used as a tool to not-so-gradually knock down free speech.

The Leveson Inquiry in the U.K. did recommend regulation of the press, but the key word was “voluntary” regulation. There is nothing voluntary about an all-party agreement amongst politicians that a government panel should have the right to decide if someone has overstepped the journalistic boundaries, or should be fired. That’s what they do in the places where there is but one name on the ballot and a dark room for dissenters.

Consider this monstrous contradiction. When journalists and news agencies were caught illegally listening in, it wasn’t enough to punish the guilty under existing law. Instead, freedom of the press itself became a target of politicians and their ongoing efforts to constrain an institution that often embarrasses them. Politicians led the charge with alacrity.

But the governments of the United States, the U.K, and Canada have been caught implementing vast domestic and international spying that makes phone-hacking look like putting your ear to the keyhole. Yet there is no talk about charging people who have violated the Constitution in the U.S., the Charter in this country, and the law in both, there is no push to hold an Inquiry – just a poll saying that an awful lot of us don’t really give a damn.

The banal routine of big government’s big lies ought to keep everyone awake at night. It has been widely reported in the U.S. and British press that the leak of diplomatic cables by Julian Assange and Wikileaks put the lives of Americans at risk and threatened national security.

Assange was universally painted as treasonous by people like then-U.S. national security adviser General Jim Jones and Mike Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was nothing more than misguided hate-mongering disguised as patriotism. One idiot on Fox News, Bob Beckel, said that the U.S. should “illegally shoot the son of a bitch.”

In Canada, Ezra Levant and Tom Flanagan agreed, Levant arguing that Assange was no different from Taliban leaders who had been targeted for assassination.

Assange had actually performed an invaluable service for democracy-loving people; telling them the documented, unspun truth about what their government was doing in their name in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In other words, doing what government is supposed to do – own up to one’s public actions in order to make accountability possible. But no one in the U.S. military was particularly anxious to talk about torturing enemy combatants, (as witnessed by former SAS officer Ben Griffin), or using white phosphorous in the raising of Fallujah, where even the British were appalled at American disregard for civilians.

As for the claim that Assange had done irreparable damage by documenting what actually happened in two wars, it was a gross distortion. Then U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates made that clear when he said the reaction from some U.S. officials was “fairly significantly overwrought,” and consequences of the leaks, “fairly modest.”

Even the chief investigator into Bradley Manning’s leak of classified documents testified that he found no evidence of a single person dying as a result of what the young soldier revealed, the Guardian reported.

And now half of the country doesn’t care if the Canadian government spies on them. One has to shake one’s head to remember that there was a time in Canada when official law-breaking was mega-news.

There was a time nearly 35 years ago when illegally opening first-class mail, stealing party membership lists, conducting unauthorized wire-taps, burning barns and conducting more than 400 break-ins led to the McDonald Commission. It pays to remember that the RCMP, which lost its Security Service over these deeds, used the Commission not to exhibit remorse for its many disgraces, but to argue that what it had done illegally ought to be made legal.

It’s time to stop jumping every time the security establishment says boo. It’s well past time to recognize that spurious national security claims have been used to either suppress information or punish those who make it available.

It is no accident that prison, embassy sanctuary, and exile have so far been the reward for three men who dared to tell what their governments are actually doing. The truth is now treasonous. The unkindest cut of all? The spooks who peer into our lives from the electronic shadows get a billion dollar palace at public expense.

For the fifty percent who don’t care what CSEC, GCHQ, or NSA are doing, ponder this: lazy democracies don’t last long. What comes next won’t really care what you think.

This article originally appeared on iPolitics.

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We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

But here’s the thing: just two per cent of The Narwhal’s readers step up to keep our stories free for all to read. Will you join the two per cent and become a member of The Narwhal today?

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