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Inside the New Offensive On Canadian Government Spying

With parliament back in session, a coalition of organizations take aim at the shadowy spy agency, CSEC.

Justin Ling

Justin Ling

Image: CSEC headquarters in Ottawa/CSEC

As parliament resumes in Canada, privacy advocates OpenMedia are hoping to stir up renewed public debate in the country, about the role of its spy agency, CSEC, in government surveillance.

Vowing to "stop illegal spying," the group just launched a new video campaign designed to stoke concern about the Communications Security Establishment Canada's shadowy mandate. The group alleges that said mandate allows for spying that is "secretive, expensive, and out-of-control."

"Canada's national spy agency can collect and analyze your private communication data without a warrant," the video warns."This could include your phone calls, your email, your internet data, and even wherever you go with your phone."

The video is another phase of the organization's campaign to raise awareness and exert pressure on the government over warrantless bulk data collection.

With the return of the Conservative party's cyber-snooping legislation, under the guise of Bill C-13, OpenMedia cobbled together the Protect Our Privacy coalition to push Canadians to voice their views.

The group includes the usual suspects of Amnesty International, the BC Civil Liberties Association, and a slew of unions. It also includes some unlikely partners like the right-leaning Canadian Taxpayer Federation, the National Firearms Association, and several media groups.

The wider campaign by OpenMedia and its partners signals a growing concern and public debate surrounding privacy issues—a similar public dialogue to the one that Americans underwent shortly after the Edward Snowden leaks.

In the past year, with a wealth of privacy-related revelations specific to Canadians, it seems like citizens are finally awake when it comes to government snooping. And if recent polling is anything to go by, OpenMedia might've just launched the latest salvo in a surveillance debate that could creep into the main issues of the coming 2015 federal election.

With members of Parliament back to work in Ottawa after a summer off, the plan is to show the Harper government that this isn't an issue that can be ignored, explained OpenMedia spokesperson David Christopher.

"If the government doesn't take action, this is going to be an election issue," he said. "And it's something where the Conservative government is out of touch with their base."

Related: Canada's Spy Agency Partnered with Quebec's Hackfest to Recruit New Hackers

Christopher figures that widespread and warrantless government surveillance is something that, "sits uncomfortably with those of a more libertarian bent" within the Conservative base, and even in the party's own caucus.

Even CSEC's toothless and largely ignored commissioner acknowledged that the spy agency was collecting Canadians' private data en masse—against its very specific mandate—as Motherboard reported in August.

Christopher says that report is a perfect example of why OpenMedia's awareness campaign is so important.

"In [the report] they revealed the number of Canadians who had their data retained," he said. "They don't say how many got caught up in this dragnet to begin with."

CSEC has a habit for capturing information—and, possibly, passing it on. The murky nature of the organization's rules of engagement makes confirmation of that fact elusive.

"We definitely need more transparency on this from CSEC rather than this sort of drip-by-drip," Christopher said.

OpenMedia's video was designed by Dafne Melania, an OpenMedia volunteer and graduate of Emily Carr University of Art and Design. "The project is a response to public apathy over online privacy," Melania said.

Come this fall, OpenMedia will be launching a crowdsourcing campaign to ask Canadians what their privacy priorities are. These priorities will then become the basis of its lobbying efforts.

And, of course, the group is also—in conjunction with the BC Civil Liberties Association—suing the federal government for spying on its citizens.

The project is a response to public apathy over online privacy

That lawsuit, which Ottawa is trying to have dismissed, is hobbled by the fact that CSEC can claim national security exemptions for its operations while refusing to hand over pertinent information on how Canada spies on its own citizens.

In the end, a judge may just overrule the spies' paranoia, if it determines that Ottawa is indeed riding roughshod over its citizens' privacy rights.

But it's not like there aren't already suspicious incidents to suggest that the signals intelligence agency has its eyes on Canadian citizens. Examples include the alleged spying operation in a Canadian airport, or revelations as to how easily law enforcement agencies can call and request user data from telecoms. And then there are the potential law provisions that could allow government officials like former Toronto mayor Rob Ford to see your online data.

In other words, the privacy debate in Canada is heating up (and for good reason).