Let’s have a discussion on privacy and the State

Hands up anyone who uses Google.  Or FaceBook.  Or Twitter.  Or LinkedIn. Or just about any other social media platform.  Now, hands up anyone who has to pay for the use of those sites.  Not too many I would imagine.

Why do you think that these platforms give you access for free?  Is is because they are all run by philanthropists?  Perhaps they are owned by gazillionaires who have too much money and want to give it away?  Not likely, eh?

Google et al let you use what they have created so that they can learn about you.  What you like to read or watch.  What you purchase.  What your interests are, generally speaking.  They collect all this data on you for one simple purpose: to monetise it.  Plainly put, these companies are seeking to make money on you through their mastery of who you are and what turns your crank.  They know that there are a tonne of businesses out there which will pay for your data so that they can target you with their products so that they too can make money.  It all comes down to money.

Now that you know this, how many of you lay awake at night worrying about this use of your personal information?  Not many, I would warrant.  And yet there are a lot of you that agonise over whether CSIS or CSE or some other Canadian government body has a file on you.  You don’t think highly of these agencies, or don’t trust them, or simply view them as evil incarnate.  And you want assurances that they are not spying on you and hoarding all your secrets.

For those of you in the latter catergory here is a primer on how those agencies work, provided by a former insider (I did indeed work for both agencies), not by a thinktank or an activist.

From a CSIS perspective that agency can initiate an investigation into anyone, Canadian or not, when it has ‘reasonable grounds to suspect’ that there is a threat to national security (you can read the CSIS Act for yourself here).  Those investigations can take many shapes but if it is determined that more intrusive powers are needed the Service can apply for a judicial warrant to intercept someone’s communications.  To do so it must convince a federal court judge that it needs this power and, if it does not do so, judges will reject the request (and they often do as they too realise that the State must prove why it has to impinge upon Charter expectations of privacy).  The CSIS Act also allows for information collected to be retained.

If a CSIS investigation shows that a criminal act is being planned the agency has mechanisms to share what it has discovered with the RCMP, which has to start its own independent investigation to determine whether charges can be laid.  It too can apply for a federal court warrant and it too can retain information.

For its part, CSE cannot collect information on Canadians.  Period.  There is no need for concern because the CSE mandate does not include carrying out investigations on Canadians, unlike CSIS and the RCMP.

Above all these agencies are review mechanisms to ensure that what they do and how they do it complies with the law.  Some Canadians are convinced that the oversight bodies are weak and need to be bolstered.  The Trudeau government seems to be moving in that very direction.

At the end of it all, you have a lot more to be concerned about what Google, FaceBook, Twitter and hundreds of other social media companies know about you than you do regarding CSIS and CSE.  It is to those entities that you should be directing your anger, not the agencies tasked with protecting us.  Furthermore, those companies are not subject to oversight or review to the best of my knowledge and can do whatever they want with your data.

If, after all this, you remain unconvinced by my argument or merely see me as a ‘shill’ for my former employers (neither of whom have any influence on what I write, for the record), then I have one more thing to tell you.  This is going to hurt, so you might want to sit down.  You are not that important.  CSE and CSIS are working at their limits trying to identify real threats to Canada and do not have the time, energy or resources to collect, process, read and retain your emails, cellphone calls and texts.  They really don’t.  If you do not pose a threat to Canada or to national security/public safety you don’t matter to them.  Sorry for the reality check.  I am sure you are a lovely person but you are irrelevant to national security agencies.

Now how about you start composing that email to Google to ask what they are doing with your data?

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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