Is all fair in love and counterterrorism?

How far do we expect or allow national security agencies to go in stopping violent extremism?

Humans are funny creatures. We want to live in a safe environment and we expect those we backstop to prevent bad things from happening to do their jobs. When those agencies ‘get their man’ they seldom receive credit, let along praise, for their actions. Maybe that is ok as these organisations are just doing what they are paid to do. Still, I wonder sometimes what the effect on morale in those workplaces is when you are rarely given an ‘attaboy’ in the wake of a successful security operation.

On the other hand, screw up once and there is hell to pay. On those occasions – which by the way are rare in my experience although I have no fancy study to back up my opinion, just 32 years of having worked in the national security realm – it’s nothing but ‘where the hell were you?’; ‘why did you fail to prevent this from happening?’; or ‘what are we paying you for?’

And then there are those who are simply anti-national security agency by default it seems. Here I am not talking about the ‘aluminum sieve’ crowd who are convinced that these bodies are stealing their memories but rather those in our society who just cannot accept that there is a time and a place for such organisations and that we really do need them to be there to help keep us safe.

RCMP audit of their social media monitoring operations

All this came to me this morning as I read a piece on the CBC Web site that noted that the RCMP has launched an internal review to make sure it is obeying the law in the way it monitors Canadians’ social media accounts. The force says it keeps an eye on social media accounts (Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, among others) in two ways: reactively, after a crime has been committed, and proactively, to detect and prevent crimes and even compiled daily threat reports on online expressions of hate targeting federal political leaders during the most recent campaign.

To its credit, the RCMP says it is auditing those techniques to make sure they agree with the law. That, I think we can all agree is a good thing. And yet it is still not enough for some. Privacy experts are calling for the imposition of clear controls on the RCMP’s online monitoring . Christopher Parsons of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy goes further: “I think generally Canadians should be concerned, because not all Canadians know they’re under suspicion.”

A kind of surveillance can get dangerous for individuals when police interpret snarky or humorous tweets as threats

Christopher Parsons
Christopher Parsons (Photo: CBC)

What possibly could lead to such panic? In Mr. Parsons’ words “a kind of surveillance can get dangerous for individuals when police interpret snarky or humorous tweets as threats .”

Wow. He must think that those of us who work in this sphere are really, really, really dumb. And I mean really dumb. We apparently cannot differentiate between real threats and some wanker who is blowing off steam (question: how DO you tell the difference Mr. Parsons?). And a result we collectively act like Big Brother, hoovering up all possible data and keeping it in deep vaults where it is stored forever. Seriously?

Is this really what those on the outside think about national security, or is it just the learned few at the Munk School? Perhaps we should ask them how we are to go about our daily duties.

Aside from a very good question about what constitutes ‘privacy’:

Q: If I tweet to my 2, 846 followers do I have ANY expectation of privacy??

A: Nope – what do we want our protectors to do?

Sure, get a warrant to intercept truly private communications, a process that I understand is very arduous (courts do NOT hand out such tools like candy). But is it not reasonable for a law enforcement agency to follow you online just as your Aunt Mabel does? If not, why not? I humbly await your wisdom.

Our protectors need tools and they need authorities to do what they do. If we constantly Monday morning quarterback their actions and decisions I am unsure what that gets us. By all means we need the mechanisms to ensure that none of these agencies goes ‘rogue’. But at the same time we need to allow them to identify threats before they strike.

Waiting until after is pointless. And unforgivable.