Internet Privacy in Canada: Is it Possible or Are We Already “Out of Control”?

As technology advances, so do government surveillance opportunities. And as these opportunities arise, what’s to stop them from being used against us?

In April of this year, the Human Rights Council at the UN presented a report on the urgent need for laws that regulate Internet surveillance practices to protect human rights standards. As the months go by, that need is becoming more and more apparent. As allegations of spying fly with the exposure of programs like PRISM and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, it seems that Canadians may have real cause for concern when it comes to individual privacy.

In spite of the Internet’s unprecedented ability to allow for freedom of expression and opinion, an enormous risk lies in the collection of information stored in what seems a limitless digital memory. What a person says online may be innocent enough, but given the right spin or put in the wrong context, one's private sentiments could be used to serve unintended means. Which is perhaps why private correspondences should be just that—private.  

In a recent interview for the Guardian, Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor, pointed out that, even if you’ve got nothing to hide, “you are being watched and recorded… you don’t have to have done anything wrong, you simply have to arrive under suspicion by anybody, even by a wrong call, and then they can use the system to go back in time to scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made.”  
The full meaning of 'privacy' has begun to shift since the advent of the Internet where email and the proliferation of social media accounts gather personal information in a way previously unimaginable. The UN report points out that things have changed drastically since the last time privacy laws were given consideration. A review of the legal landscape may be in order considering that in the last twenty years, countries like the US, where wiretapping “was viewed as such a serious threat to privacy that its use had to be restricted to detecting and prosecuting the most serious crimes,” are now streamlining more State-sponsored surveillance.  
While no one questions a State’s authority to investigate criminal activity, the report highlights the need for policy to protect the privacy rights of individuals. It reminds us that to express any opinion – through any medium – is a basic human right under articles 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The writing implies that expressions of opinion should not be used to build a case against an individual. But that is exactly what could happen if individuals are unknowingly monitored and their private information is stored. 
Governments seem largely unconcerned with the attention Internet privacy has received in recent weeks. The outcry in America about the monitoring of Verison customers inspired little reaction in the Obama administration, with President Obama simply stating: “You can’t have 100% security and also have 100% privacy.” He did assure, however, that specific American individuals were not being targeted for surveillance. 
Canadians, on the other hand, have no such assurance. Despite being “foreign citizens,” which according to Ronald Deibert, director of Toronto’s Citizens Lab, means “we’re fair game when it comes to eavesdropping.” He warns that Canadians shouldn’t rely on citizenship in cyberspace.

“Canadians should know that they live in a borderless environment when it comes to North America.”

DeSmog recently interviewed Canadian internet privacy expert, Richard S. Rosenberg, emeritus professor of Computer Science at UBC, board member of the BC Civil Liberties Association, President of the Freedom of Information and Privacy Association of British Columbia and author of several editions of the book, The Social Impact of Computers.

Rosenberg is not at all surprised at the reach of the government’s ability to collect information. He is, however, pleased that the issue is gaining some public momentum. 

Rosenberg has been publishing on the subject of privacy and technology since 1983. He says that in the past, we weren’t dealing with such a large-scale problem. Companies have had access to personal information for quite a long time, and for the most part, that hasn’t been a problem.

“Companies probably want to be responsible with your information,” he said. The thing that has changed drastically in recent years is that the collection and storage of information has become cheap and easy. What has changed “is the scope."

"All of a sudden the government is looking at vast amounts of information and this is all possible because of computers. The scope of the privacy issue is directly related to the technology.”
He says that the main problem is in the mindset about these kinds of advancements. “It's based on this old notion of technology, which is: if you can do it, do it.” The question surrounding the intersection of government and technology, he says, is one of ability. The government is concerned with what it can do, rather than what it should do. 
Things that were illegal before, like wiretapping and unwarranted surveillance, are common police practices now. These things are easier to do than they used to be and they are sold to us as necessary security.

But, Rosenberg argues that individuals who endeavour to commit acts of terrorism will work around known surveillances. “9/11 changed things a lot. You have these people who were doing a lot of planning over the Internet. If the Internet had been monitored in some fashion, could it have been anticipated? That’s not clear at all. The [Boston Marathon Bombing] just happened and that wasn’t anticipated.” 

There are few limitations to Internet surveillance in Canada. The introduction of the Lawful Access Legislation bill, says Rosenberg, is a point in case. When the bill was originally introduced the Canadian public wouldn’t hear of it: it was a blatant intrusion on civil rights.

But proponents of the bill – like Public Safety Minister Vic Toews – suggested those who opposed the legislation, “supported child pornographers."

"The argument was," says Rosenberg, "if they had to wait to get a warrant, a child pornography offender could take down their site and start a new one before [the police] could legally investigate them. This is the kind of argument that allowed them to put our civil liberties on hold.” Despite gaining a temporary foothold, the bill was eventually thrown out.
So are we on a runaway train? Rosenberg thinks we might be. The only way to reverse the problem, he says, is through transparency.

“We are almost out of control [of the collection of information]. The problem is, we expect government to be responsible. What we need to do is, we need to know what type of information is being collected. What that information is being used for should be apparent and that it’s secure. The government claims the right to do what they want [with our information]. How did they get this right? Did they ask? The government would say: no this is just what we’ve always been doing. We just do it better now. We do it faster. We get more information. We can answer questions more quickly and we can be more efficient.”  tweet

“They say they’re doing all this for our protection. We should say: at what cost?”
*images used with permission from BC Civil Liberties Association and Richard Rosenberg.

Elizabeth Hand is a novelist and educator in the fields of writing and science. She holds an MFA in Creative…

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