Canada's PRISM: Secret surveillance program approved in 2011

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A memorandum obtained by the Globe and Mail has revealed that Canada’s Defense Minister Peter MacKay approved a “secret electronic eavesdropping program” in late 2011.

Only days after a leak disclosed the U.S. government’s controversial online surveillance activities, a memorandum obtained by the Globe and Mail has revealed that Canada’s Defense Minister Peter MacKay approved a “secret electronic eavesdropping program” in late 2011.

The Canadian program, run by the country’s Department of National Defense, was initially established eight years ago but was suspended in 2008 after a federal watchdog group took issue with its intrusiveness. Currently, it appears to be limited to collecting metadata—such as call records and IP addresses—but concerns over privacy violations remain.

As law professor Michael Geist wrote on his blog, “many experts note that meta data can be more revealing than the content of the call itself.” The government can gleam potentially sensitive medical and political information from a basic time-stamped telephone record.

“If you can track that, you know exactly what is happening—you don’t need the content,” mathematician and former Sun Microsystems engineer Susan Landau told the New Yorker.

It is unclear from the much-redacted memo if the program violates the privacy rights of Canadians. As a state official told the Globe and Mail, “metadata is used to isolate and identify foreign communications.” When information on Canadians is obtained, the Department of National Defense claims to “anonymize” it. But, as Geist writes, the department “has the power to assist [the Canadian Security Intelligence Service], [the Royal Canadian Mounted Police] and other agencies with their domestic monitoring operations, aided by several super-computers.”

Ultimately, like so many of the players now tangled up in the debate over Internet privacy, Canada’s surveillance program relies on legal ambiguities established in the Cold War era.

“It is illegal for most Western espionage agencies to spy on their citizens without judicial authorization,” the Globe noted. “But rising fears about foreign terrorist networks, coupled with the explosion of digital communications, have shifted the mandates of secretive electronic-eavesdropping agencies that were created by military bureaucracies to spy on Soviet states.”

Photo via  Mikey G Ottawa/Flickr

This could be how PRISM actually works
Though we don't know the particulars of PRISM—the recently revealed program that allows the NSA and FBI to monitor users of Google, Yahoo, and Facebook, among others—a clearer picture is starting to take shape as those companies deny being part of such a system.
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