An Overview: Surveillance Practices in Canada
Privacy concerns have recently hit Canadian headlines with the revelation that the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) routinely monitors social networks. It reportedly checks Facebook, Twitter and other social media posts of Canadians suspected of cheating on their taxes. The news has sparked a debate on what constitutes ‘publicly available’ information and what kind of investigation is considered directly related to a government program.
However, the CRA’s practice seems rather tame compared to the official powers granted to government institutions by Anti-terrorism Act, 2015 (also known as Bill-C51).
Powers Granted by Bill-C51
Among other things, the act passed by the Conservative government of then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper gives the following powers to the police and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS):
- Mandatory retention of communications metadata (phone numbers, email addresses, subscriber details, etc.) for 6 months and sharing the stored information among 17 federal institutions;
- Investigation of anything that is remotely suspicious and might be interpreted as support for terrorism;
- Arresting suspects without a warrant and holding them for up to seven days before a hearing;
- Jailing people for making any statements interpreted as supporting or promoting terrorism, including literature, blog posts, news reports or any other form of expression;
- Power “to order the removal of terrorist propaganda” from the Internet;
- Waging cyberwar by disrupting websites and Twitter accounts deemed radical;
- Surveillance and infiltration of special interest groups (environmentalists, First Nations rights advocates, pipeline protesters, etc) believed to be ‘high risk groups’.
Unsurprisingly, the act was met with criticism from human rights groups, legal scholars, business leaders and even four former Prime Ministers. The key motif repeated by the various opponents was the fear of seeing Canada abandon human rights in the name of protecting national security. According to Amnesty International, “It is absolutely vital that terrorist threats be addressed through measures that are in keeping with international human rights obligations.”
Activists also fear that language in the Bill C-51 leaves open the possibility to use the act and the increased intelligence powers against First Nations and environmentalists, who engage in peaceful protests against pipelines or other projects harmful to the environment.
On top of that, Conservative backers of the bill repeatedly characterized the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) as providing oversight of the CSIS. However, the committee itself contradicts such claims. SIRC has stated it had been intentionally designed to be a restricted, after-the-fact “review” body, rather than a powerful “oversight” committee that could assess intelligence operations. Therefore, no effective oversight of the CSIS activities actually exists.
New Government, Same Issues
Although the new Liberal government has promised to repeal some of the more controversial sections and introduce parliamentary oversight of intelligence agencies, the changes are yet to materialize. Instead, reports emerged that Quebec’s two largest police forces had been monitoring the phones of several local reporters in recent years, prompting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to reiterate the importance of free press in a democracy.
While the Liberal government is searching for the best balance between national security and citizens’ rights, there are some steps Canadians can take to protect their privacy, such as using a VPN. VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) secure and encrypt internet traffic, helping to protect users’ identity and data by hiding their IP addresses. However, it is crucial to use a VPN provider that does not store data or communication logs, like NordVPN.