Privacy is one of the most contentious political issues of our generation. Those of us angry at its slow erosion are either asked what we have to hide or are accused of committing a slippery-slope logical fallacy. Well, this week we slid even further with the government’s proposed anti-terrorism legislation.
Bill C-51 will lower the threshold for preventive arrest and extend the detention period to seven days, expand the no-fly list, and allow court proceedings to be sealed. It will also criminalize the “promotion of terrorism,” raising concerns about freedom of speech. It will greatly expand the power of CSIS, allowing them to “disrupt” terrorist activity, remove terrorist material from the internet, and “counter-message” inside and outside of Canada.
It’s important to remember this is one piece of legislation in a line of many since Sept. 11, 2001. The Anti-Terrorism Act 2001 was a massive omnibus bill written, tabled and passed in only three months. The act was wrought with controversial provisions such as preventative detention and investigative judicial hearings, in which people who have not been charged with a crime can be compelled to answer questions before a secret court. Both seem tame by today’s standards.
Three years later came the Public Safety Act, which created the no-fly list and required passenger information to be given to CSIS if they requested it. The act also created exceptions to regulations against covert collection of personal data. Next came Bill S-7, which extended and expanded upon the Anti-Terrorism Act 2001. The bill came after the Boston Marathon
bombing and, curiously, the debate was pushed forward to coincide with the announcement of a terrorist arrest. Then there was the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act which compelled telecom companies and Internet service providers to hand over customer metadata upon request. Companies were shielded from lawsuits for doing so, and the grounds for request were lowered to “reason to suspect,” and all requests can be keep secret.
You would think that with all the power intelligence agencies have been given, the government would be inclined to keep a close eye on them. In fact, they’ve done what they can to ensure CSIS and CSE answer to as few people as possible. The CSIS inspector general’s office worked full-time with a staff of eight to oversee the agency. The office was eliminated in its entirety in 2012. That leaves only the Security Intelligence Review Committee to monitor CSIS. Its former chair, Arthur Porter, is currently in a Panama prison awaiting extradition for fraud.
Other Harper appointees include former Conservative MPs and oil industry lobbyists and board members. Although working only part-time, the committee was able to produce a report recently which questioned whether an “intelligence accountability framework that was designed 30 years ago is still appropriate.”
From the perspective of the government, the courts will act as oversight. In the bill, it says that if CSIS needed to break the law to “disrupt” terrorist activities, they can do so with a warrant. Aside from the obvious, the problem is that CSIS hasn’t shown much respect for courts in the past. Not only has SIRC accused CSIS of intentionally misleading them, but when CSIS asked the NSA and other Five Eyes partners to spy on Canadians for them, Judge Richard Mosley said that “A decision was made by CSIS, in collaboration with CSE officials … to strategically omit information in (warrant) applications” which was a “deliberate decision to keep the court in the dark.”
There has been growing concern over CSIS’s increasingly frequent collaboration with CSE, which operates under different laws and can collect specific types of information without a warrant. Not surprisingly, CSE has even less oversight than CSIS. Multiple CSE oversight commissioners have suggested CSE’s action may have been illegal, but they’re not entirely sure because CSE’s records are unclear, incomplete or missing.
Even when the commissioners are made aware of possible wrong-doing, reports are filled with the Defence Minister, the same person who would be held responsible if CSE was found to be acting illegally. Not only that, but oversight commissioners’ annual reports to parliament are given to CSE beforehand and they’re allowed censor the report as they see fit. It’s painfully ironic how much privacy the organization enjoys.
With every attack we’re scared into thinking that it will take just a little more for us to be safe. Be it from the communists of the past, the jihadists of today or the boogeyman of the future. Privacy is quickly becoming a thing of the past, and with this new legislation, the door is now open to freedom of speech and any other law deemed to be inconvenient. How much further are we going to slide?