Features / Ottawa / Hacking: How to defend yourself

Canadians 'should be outraged' by WiFi spy allegations: Borg

If protecting the privacy of Canadians is CSEC’s “most important principle”, then why do documents leaked by Edward Snowden appear to indicate that the spy agency was snooping on Canadian citizens at a major Canadian airport?

It’s a question that has sparked debate on Parliament Hill in recent months and it is one that NDP digital issues critic Charmaine Borg still struggles with.

Borg says Canadians “should be outraged” by allegations published in a January CBC News report which said the government agency spied on Canadians at an undisclosed airport by scooping up metadata from its free WiFi network.

“The thought that everything you’re doing is being monitored when there’s no need for it, when there’s no reason to believe you’ve done anything wrong, it completely goes against everything we’ve built our criminal justice system on,” said Borg in a telephone interview with Metro in March. “If you think that we’re just spying on everyone, well maybe it takes away that platform of being able to discuss social issues because you’re scared of what the repercussions might be and I think that’s very worrisome.”

CSEC chief John Forster has defended his agency’s actions, saying it may only “incidentally” intercept Canadian communications while targeting foreigners.

Metro was denied multiple requests for a telephone interview with Public Safety Canada and Minster Steven Blaney to discuss domestic spying and what the government is doing to protect Canadians’ privacy.

“Our Government takes cyber security seriously and operates on the advice of security experts,” wrote Blaney’s press secretary, Jason Tamming, in an email statement, which also mentioned a $245 million investment in the government’s Cyber Security Strategy. The strategy was designed to protect public and private sector IT networks and the personal information of Canadians against online threats.

In another email to Metro, Sabrina Meheš, a Public Safety spokesperson, noted Canadian intelligence agencies are subject to “multiple layers of scrutiny” by independent organizations.

 A page from a CSEC document leaked by Edward Snowden.

A page from a CSEC document leaked by Edward Snowden.

“CSEC and CSIS, are both subject to independent review,” wrote Meheš. “There is also judicial oversight of more intrusive CSIS activities, and Ministerial approval of certain CSEC and CSIS activities.”

But the government’s prying eyes aren’t the only ones Borg and privacy advocates are worried about.

In 2013 she tabled a private member’s bill to give the federal privacy commissioner order making powers and to hold private companies like Facebook and Google more accountable when they violate Canadian privacy laws. Bill C-475, however, did not pass second reading in January.

When asked what Canada is doing to protect the privacy of Canadians from corporations and hackers, Meheš referred Metro to the same Cyber Security Strategy.

“Part of being safe online is being careful about how you share information and being aware of the privacy policies of the sites you use,” added Meheš. “Canada does have strong legislation to protect personal privacy.”

But sometimes those laws, namely the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), aren’t enough

Google has been in the crosshairs of the privacy commissioner for a number of years. When corporations contravene PIPEDA, the privacy commissioner can only make corrective recommendations and hope for the best.

“Here in Canada, all they get is a meager slap on the wrist,” said Borg. “If there are repercussions for violating our privacy laws, these organizations will start to treat the privacy of Canadians more seriously from the get go.”

-with files from Torstar News Service