Canadians should pay attention to the U.S. surveillance story

Matthew Coutts
Outrage grows as new details emerge

The safety and value of American privacy has been called into questions following leaked information about an Internet surveillance program and, just maybe, those concerns should leak into Canada as well.

The Washington Post learned this week that U.S. authorities have been mining tech companies to access emails, photos and other documents in order to analyze a person’s online behaviour. A separate report suggested the government was doing the same with calls on the Verison telephone network, both inside the U.S. as well as other countries.

The result is the National Security Agency (NSA) compiling a map and timeline of information related to who contacts whom and when, regardless of whether they are accused of any wrongdoing.

U.S. President Barack Obama defended the program on Friday, saying it "struck the right balance" between privacy and safety. "Nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That's not what this program is about," Obama said, according to Reuters.

That's fine in America, but what about Canada? We didn't elect the guy (although most of likely us would have, had we the chance). But in the backlash from these revelations is the understanding that it didn't just affect Americans. Information from those outside the country, including Canada, was being gathered as well.

[ Related: Obama defends surveillance program as trade-off for security ]

At the heart of the matter is the NSA's relationship with PRISM – a government surveillance program that mines information from U.S.-owned tech companies.

U.S. intelligence chief James Clapper told Reuters the law lets government agencies access the information of "non-U.S. persons" outside of the United States.

Presumably the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act has more important things to monitor than correspondence between U.S. uncles and Canadian nephews, but those could be covered as well.

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Richard Stiennon has an interesting take on Forbes.com, in which he says the NSA spying ring threatened U.S. competitiveness by undermining tech firms' offering global service.

"Email archiving services ... could not sell to even Canadian customers without building local infrastructure. Even establishing separate data centers in Canada and Europe is not enough to assure customers that their data would forever stay out of the grasp of US intelligence services," Stiennon wrote.

He adds that he is asked about this issue whenever he travels outside the U.S. "Yes, U.S. government agencies are reading email, tracking phone calls, and monitoring all communications," he writes.

The Guardian reported on Friday that U.K.’s security agency was also gathering information through the PRISM program.

Privacy lawyer David Fraser told Global News that if Canada's intelligence agencies were taking the same measures, it would take a whistleblower inside the government to bring it to light.

He added that Canada's anti-terrorism laws don't allow our government to go to the same lengths as in America.

Thank goodness for small miracles. Although it's not likely we are out of the woods entirely.