Sometimes being Canadian can feel quite nice, especially when the United States make a particularly blunderous mistake. This feeling of national superiority has run strong in the past few weeks as more information on America’s insidiously named Prism program continues to come to light.
For those of you who have been too distracted by flooding and stampeding to stay up to date with global events, here is a quick summary of the unfortunate debacle: files leaked by a computer technician named Edward Snowden have shown that the United States National Security Agency has been gathering metadata from various consumer technology companies in order to monitor and spy on potential threats to national security. This project, known as Prism, means that the American government has access to extensive records of emails, instant messaging logs and Internet activity from companies such as Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook and Yahoo.
While this brief summary only scratches the surface of the massive iceberg that is Prism, it should be enough to unnerve Internet users concerned with protecting their privacy. Yet however unpleasant Prism seems, Canadians may want to disregard this as another example of American arrogance — disappointing but ultimately harmless to anyone outside of their border.
Unfortunately, the problem isn’t that simple. Almost all of the Internet services used by Canadians are run by American companies, which means that most information sent in Canada over the Internet will pass through American servers. Every status and photo you have posted to Facebook, every keyword you’ve Googled and every message you’ve sent over Skype are fair game to the NSA. This is made more troubling by the revelation that Prism was designed to specifically target people outside of the United States.
Admittedly, the likelihood that the NSA will ever actually look at your private information is incredibly slim, but the fact that they have the ability to do so in the first place is alarming. Also troubling is the precedent that Prism may set for other countries — if the NSA is allowed to get away with this, other governments that have yet to begin harvesting metadata will undoubtedly follow suit. Some countries may feel like they have no choice but to try to keep up, implementing programs similar to Prism in order to meet American standards for “Internet security.” Of course, some nations probably already have such programs — the world only learned about Prism because of leaked information, after all.
Canada, on the other hand, has publicly admitted that it already has an Internet surveillance program in place, although little is known about its scope or reach. The program was started by Canada’s Communications Security Establishment in 2011 and, like Prism, supposedly only targets foreign threats. This claim is impossible to confirm, however, since the program has been shrouded in an immense amount of secrecy.
Fortunately, this secrecy has encountered recent opposition by federal privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart, who plans to launch an investigation into the CSE’s metadata collection program. Stoddart will also be working with her counterparts in other countries to investigate Prism, which will hopefully shed more light onto the specifics of the NSA’s spying activity. With public opinion in Canada on her side, hopefully Stoddart and like-minded MPs will be able to get some answers to some very pressing questions.
Canadians can sometimes see America’s problems as distant and ultimately benign, but the reality of governments collecting metadata is something that Canadian citizens can’t afford to be passive about. If you care about this issue then you need let your voice be heard — there may not be a better opportunity for Canadians to stand up for their privacy.