David Murakami Wood is Canada Research Chair (Tier II) in Surveillance Studies at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario. He specializes in the histories, technologies and practices of surveillance in cross-cultural contexts, particularly in the UK, Canada, USA, Japan and Brazil. He is Editor-in-Chief of Surveillance & Society, the international journal of surveillance studies.
Nowhere has Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s infamous promise to transform Canada beyond recognition been more fulfilled than in the area of surveillance and privacy. The Harper Decade has been characterized by a constant and consistent chipping away at fundamental human rights – particularly the right to privacy – and an increase in the powers of state organizations to investigate and interfere with the lives and views of Canadians.
Despite the fears generated by small increases in the numbers of surveillance cameras on public streets for mega-events like the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and the Toronto G20 summits, Canada has not gone down the road of ‘cameras on every corner’ as in the United Kingdom. Instead, Harper has followed suit in regard to the other major component of the British surveillance society: the state’s assertion of its right to infiltrate itself into the communications and private information of its citizens.
The expansion of security and control
Harper’s early minority administration was influenced by a considerable right-libertarian presence. Investigative journalist Jesse Brown has pointed out that while Stockwell Day was Public Safety Minister, so-called ‘lawful access’ legislation, which set out the powers of the state in relation to telecommunications, was not on the table. However, with changes in the composition of cabinet in 2009, Harper’s administration moved in an increasingly authoritarian direction, often without regard for public or political opposition. Public Safety Ministers Peter van Loan and Steven Blaney, Justice Ministers Rob Nicholson and Peter Mackay, and famous fall-guy Vic Toews, who has held both portfolios, have all been involved in attempts to push through legislation that would, to varying extents, remove the presumption that electronic communications are private, and which would allow the state to collect, sort and sift through our words and thoughts.
Harper’s attempts started with 2009’s pairing of Bill C-46, the Investigative Powers for the 21st Century Act, and Bill C-47, the Technical Assistance for Law Enforcement in the 21st Century Act, which sought to extend lawful access provisions and created warrantless police access to many aspects of Internet communications such as subscriber data. These were eventually withdrawn, but re-emerged in 2011 as Bill C-30, which also sought to extend police powers and require telephone companies and Internet service providers to install surveillance hardware.
This time around, however, the Conservative rhetoric in support of the bill was far nastier. C-30 was dubiously titled the Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act, and Minister Vic Toews claimed that opponents of the bill were siding with the child pornographers. Like its predecessors, C-30 was eventually dropped, only to be followed by Bill C-13 (2013), the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act. Although C-13 was ostensibly designed to tackle cyber-bullying, this justification appeared to be “tacked on simply to increase police powers to investigate our online activities,” according to a report by the Globe and Mail. Bill C-13, which is now in effect, was shortly followed by the introduction of the highly controversial Bill C-51, which will be discussed further below.
Given this concerted campaign to extend state surveillance powers and erode individual privacy, it may seem ironic that, in 2010, Harper abolished one of the state’s most important information gathering tools, the mandatory long-form census, supposedly on privacy grounds. Of course, the irony can easily be explained: the long form census provided information on Canada’s social situation, and was used to justify and target spending on health, education and social welfare, rectifying or at least providing some compensation for social inequalities and injustices. These were never Harper’s priorities. Instead he has consistently promoted security and social control.
Indeed, the Harper administration seems intent to follow the rightward authoritarian direction of US security policy following 9/11, despite the fact that Canada has neither previously been the target of foreign threats nor sought to provoke them, and has nothing like the violent crime rates of its larger southern neighbour. Harper’s love-hate relationship with America has meant that Canada has come increasingly under the US’s security ambit, but at the same time, American power has proved problematic for Harper’s puffed-up military ambitions.
In 2011, Canada and United States signed a special declaration titled Beyond the Border: A Shared Vision for Perimeter Security and Economic Competitiveness. The declaration laid out a plan and a list of priorities aimed “to enhance our security and accelerate the legitimate flow of people, goods and services,” thus further entangling Canadian sovereignty with that of the United States – a trend that has accelerated since the 9/11 attacks. Without much protest, Canada agreed to ‘share’ (i.e. give up) personal information about Canadians to the United States for a multitude of purposes. Even the medical records of those who have suffered the most mundane mental illnesses are now available to the US border guards and may be used to justify refusal of entry. Further, US border guards now operate inside Canadian territory in places such as Pearson International Airport in Toronto, while it has even been suggested that American border guards may have similar extra-territorial powers at major railroad stations and the like in the future.
The Beyond the Border agreement, it seems, will eventually extend the United States perimeter around Canada entirely. And yet Harper has bristled at frequent American suggestions that the High Arctic might be an international territory rather than Canadian. Seemingly haphazardly, the Conservative government has invested in what is slowly becoming billions of dollars in a late, over-budget and, according to experts, ultimately unnecessary, Arctic surveillance drone program.
The eroding accountability of surveillance agencies is another theme of the Harper decade. Following the Snowden information leak in 2013, it was revealed that the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) – our Signals Intelligence agency – was in fact a long-time junior partner of the American National Security Agency. It was also revealed that CSEC was operating its own mass surveillance programs. Once again, this should have been a national scandal, but Harper managed to avoid almost all of the consequences of the Snowden revelations that other nations of the so-called ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence alliance – the USA, the UK, Australia and New Zealand – had to face. Instead, while the revelations were ongoing, CSEC was building a glitzy new spy palace near Ottawa.
It has also been no secret that Harper has long wanted to let the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) – Canada’s Human Intelligence agency and equivalent of the CIA – ‘off the leash’, both at home and abroad. In 2012, the government eliminated the arm’s length CSIS Inspector-General’s Office, the body responsible for monitoring Canada’s other major spy agency, and absorbed its functions into the Security Intelligence Review Committee, consisting of part-time federal appointees.
In late 2014, Prime Minister Harper cynically took advantage of what were far from being obvious major threats to Canadian national security – including the home grown, ‘lone wolf’ terrorist attacks in Quebec and Ottawa, and the rise of the bloodthirsty, ramshackle ISIS ‘caliphate’ in the Middle East – to further expand the scope of Canada’s surveillance agencies. The resulting Bill C-51 was deliberately cobbled into a larger omnibus bill that combined so many different aspects of legislation that is was hard for the opposition, let alone the general public, to parse the details. For CSIS, C-51 provided greater foreign and domestic powers and more explicit impunity from accountability in the use of these powers.
But was the introduction of Bill C-51 really about the threat of ‘Islamic extremism’? In advance of an election he seems far from certain to win, Harper has certainly attempted to stoke racist fears regarding Muslims in Canada. However, documents emerging from the Canadian security services tell a different story: it seems that Harper’s real fears lie in the growing opposition to his power base in Alberta, and in particular, opposition to the oil industry from resurgent indigenous rights activists (reflected both in the grass-roots Idle No More movement and First Nations’ successes in land-rights claims in the courts) and environmental organizations. It was no coincidence that both were subject to RCMP infiltration and surveillance throughout this period, while environmental groups were conspicuously audited by the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA).
Despite this intimidation, hundreds of thousands of Canadians from across the political spectrum have come together to protest Bill C-51, suggesting that Harper’s surveillance agenda may yet backfire on his re-election ambitions.
The C-51 controversy has also provided what is perhaps the most emblematic moment in Harper’s surveillance decade. The recently appointed Privacy Commissioner, Daniel Therrien, a lifelong government security lawyer given the job over far more suitable privacy specialists after an opaque appointments process, voiced a mild criticism of Bill C-51, referring to the legislation as “excessive.” Consequently, he was barred from giving oral evidence to the Conservative-dominated House of Commons Public Safety Committee. It seems that Harper’s watchdogs should roll over and play dead, not bark - even politely.
It has been a frequent claim of Harper’s most vehement critics that he is a totalitarian. I would only note that the moderate British Sociologist, Anthony Giddens, argued that all surveillance in democratic societies tends towards totalitarianism. Whether Harper’s own tendencies are totalitarian or not, his reliance on security and surveillance solutions to social problems inevitably leads in this direction. For the indigenous peoples of Canada, this will come as no news at all. But it should be an unwelcome reminder to all Canadians that Canada is now certainly unrecognizable as, what Satya Das termed in pre-Harper days, The Best Country.