What if Edward Snowden was Canadian?
That's the question I kept asking myself as I read Glenn Greenwald's new book on the terrifying reach of the modern surveillance state.
In "No Place To Hide", the journalist who served as the conduit for the Snowden leaks tells the story of his world-changing 2013 meeting with the NSA whistleblower in Hong Kong. Greenwald was struck by how serene Snowden was about risking his liberty, and maybe even his life, to let the world know about the NSA's mission to eliminate global privacy.
Snowden's only fear was that nobody would listen.That nobody would care.
But Snowden had nothing to be afraid of. The first stories about America's surveillance of its own citizens sparked a firestorm of media coverage and forced Barack Obama to order a review of the NSA's activities. Americans got angry and they got results.
But if Snowden was Canadian, his worst nightmares would have come true.
The public response was positively sedate when news broke last month that Canada's telecom companies are handing over an avalanche of our personal information to the government without warrants. Within a week, the story was dead.
As a child, I was taught that in a democracy the government cannot invade the privacy of its citizens without consulting a court. As an adult, I fear we are no longer living in a democracy.
Since the Snowden leak in 2013 Canadians have learned that:
- Our telecoms have built databases specifically for use by police.
- At least one company has given the government unrestricted access to its network.
- Our electronic surveillance agency, CSEC, is spying on Canadians. One program got so out of hand it had to be shut down.
- The government closely collaborates with the NSA and likely has a similar warrantless surveillance program.
- Canada allowed the NSA to spy at the Toronto G20.
- CSEC takes money from the NSA and helped the U.S. agency crack encryption standards that keep the internet secure.
Most tellingly, we know the Conservative government just doubled funding for CSEC and is moving the agency to a new state-of-the-art headquarters at a cost of $1.2 billion.
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We know these revelations are just the tip of the iceberg because both the government and the telecom companies resist transparency at every turn. Only three of the nine telecom companies asked by the privacy commissioner about warrantless government requests deigned to provide her with information. The size of the program is undoubtedly much larger than has been reported.
And yet Canadians don't seem to care.
Most say they have nothing to hide and thus nothing to fear.
But what about those who do have something to fear? What about groups the government doesn't agree with? What about environmentalists and First Nations activists and Anonymous?
This is, after all, a government that includes a senator who suggested environmental groups accept money from al-Qaeda.
A functioning democracy requires the freedom to express dissent.
Pervasive surveillance puts an almost imperceptible chill on everything we do. The knowledge that the state may be watching us leads us to self-censor. Maybe I shouldn't send that email. Maybe I shouldn't visit this website. Maybe I shouldn't share my thoughts. Without the use of force, the state succeeds in enforcing our orthodoxy. It makes us more servile.
But Canadians are not powerless.
The government is once again using the guise of protecting children to push legislation that will give telecom companies even more legal cover to hand over our information without a warrant. Bill C-13, the so-called cyberbullying bill, will lower the standard required for government agencies to get our data. Even Amanda Todd's mother, whose daughter took her own life after being mercilessly abused online, thinks the legislation goes too far.
Canadians can write Stephen Harper and their MPs. They can demand for provisions that have nothing to do with protecting children to be removed from the bill. Public outrage killed the government's first attempt to make these measures law. It can work again.
It shouldn't stop there. Citizens can lobby for more transparency into CSEC's activities. They can organize protests and sign petitions.
In short: Canada should get angry.
Because in this we have something to learn from America.
In the words of Benjamin Franklin: "They who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."