Surveillance shouldn’t be the new normal

As the Globe and Mail has reported — based on classified documents obtained from an anonymous source — U.S. intelligence officials appear to be mapping the communications traffic of several large Canadian corporations, including Rogers Communications Inc., one of the country’s largest internet and telecom providers. Perhaps the most depressing aspects of this news is how completely unsurprising it is.

By now, we have all been subjected to a veritable tsunami of surveillance-related leaks, courtesy of documents obtained by former U.S. intelligence analyst Edward Snowden, a trove from which this latest piece of information is also drawn. These files suggest the National Security Agency uses every method at its disposal — both legal and otherwise — to track every speck of web and voice traffic, including tapping directly into the undersea cables that make up the backbone of the internet.

In that context, the idea that intelligence agencies are snooping on the networks of Canadian corporations like Rogers seems totally believable, despite the fact that a 66-year-old agreement between Canada and the U.S. supposedly prevents either country from spying on the residents of its partner. While the document in question doesn’t say that any snooping is occurring, it seems clear that the behaviour it describes is designed to create a map of those networks in order to facilitate future surveillance activity.

The U.S. has repeatedly argued that this kind of monitoring is necessary in order to detect the activities of potential threats to U.S. security. The problem with this approach, of course, is that no one knows where those threats will appear, or how they will manifest themselves — thanks to the diverse nature of modern international terrorism — and so the inevitable result is a kind of ubiquitous surveillance, in which every word and photo and voice-mail message is collected, just in case it might be important.

Photo by Carolina Georgatou
Photo by Carolina Georgatou

One of the risks inherent in the steady flow of leaks from Mr. Snowden and others is that the new reality they portray eventually becomes accepted, if not outright banal. Of course we are being surveilled all the time; of course our location is being tracked thanks to the GPS chips in our phones; of course the NSA is installing “back door” software on our internet devices before we even buy them. At this point, it’s hard to imagine a surveillance revelation that would actually surprise anyone, no matter how Orwellian it might be.

If nothing else, one of our duties in this kind of environment — a duty not just for journalists but for governments as well, and the Canadian government in particular — is to prevent this kind of behavior from becoming banal, to fight the overwhelming sense of “surveillance fatigue” that each new revelation triggers, by shouting our disapproval from the rooftops if necessary.

This is one reason why we should celebrate the existence of leakers and “whistle-blowers” like Mr. Snowden — and even entities like WikiLeaks, despite all the obvious flaws inherent in that organization and its founder Julian Assange — regardless of our partisan political leanings. The U.S. government and its allies may see both of these men as traitors, and their acts as treasonous, but how else are we to discover the innumerable ways in which we are being surveilled against our will?

If our government wants to maintain the trust of its citizens, it should mount its own campaign against these kinds of activities — which are taking place either with its explicit or tacit approval. Just because we are friends and trading partners with the U.S. doesn’t mean we have to submit to their vision of what the future needs to look like.

We don’t need to live in a world where the locks on our virtual doors have a secret pass-code so that government forces can enter at will if they believe we are a threat to national security, or where our every click is recorded and filed away in a secret location, and our cellphones and internet devices listen to our conversations waiting for us to utter certain red-flag trigger phrases. If our governments believe it is necessary to trade our freedom for what amounts to an illusion of security, we need to do everything in our power to convince them that it this is not a trade we wish to make.

This post originally appeared as an op-ed piece in the Globe and Mail

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