We are Recognizing The Tyee for Outstanding Reporting Related to Surveillance and Privacy

On June 27th, 2019, at our Annual General Meeting, we’ll be presenting The Tyee with an award that recognizes their outstanding reporting related to surveillance and privacy. (More information about our AGM and registration.)

As a nonprofit society, the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association holds an Annual General Meeting. We like to make our AGMs engaging by inviting a guest speaker to give a talk related to information and privacy rights. This year, we are excited to welcome Bryan Carney, Director of Web Production at The Tyee, as our AGM guest speaker. Bryan’s talk is entitled ‘Accountability Cannot Be Automated’.

FIPA’s Directors and Staff thought that this would be a good opportunity to recognize The Tyee for its consistent attention to stories related to surveillance and privacy. Investigative reporting and insightful writing by Tyee contributors have broadened and informed public debates about a range of important privacy rights issues, including these 2018-2019 examples:

The last few years have seen a welcome across-the-board increase in media attention to surveillance and privacy, driven by, among other things, the Cambridge Analytica scandal, increasing public concerns about Big Data and the power of social media, the ongoing expansion of government surveillance powers, and a steady churn of massive data breaches. There have also been some positive shifts in the tone and scope of media coverage, and we have seen an increased willingness to pose big questions and examine structural and systemic problems.

Despite these developments, many media organizations still struggle with the task of connecting specific surveillance and privacy issues to both the lived experiences of individuals and broader trends like surveillance capitalism.

This is why we are so impressed with The Tyee’s work on these topics. The Tyee consistently publishes detailed and informative stories that examine the everyday dimensions of surveillance practices, address their implications, and pose vital questions about accountability and the adequacy of legal and institutional privacy protections. And, while The Tyee does provide reactive coverage and follow-up reporting when important privacy rights issues are broken by other media organizations, it is also tenaciously proactive, posing questions, following leads, and using FOI and Privacy requests to further original reporting. We would not know what we know about TransLink data sharing, RCMP social media snooping, or the BC connection to the Facebook scandal without the work of Tyee contributors and editors.

So, on behalf of FIPA, kudos to The Tyee for continued excellence in reporting on these vital topics. I am glad that Bryan Carney will be at our AGM to accept this award on behalf of The Tyee, as he has had a hand in many Tyee stories on privacy issues. To The Tyee’s staff, editors, and contributors, I hope that this award serves as recognition of a job well done and an affirmation of the value of continuing to invest in the ‘privacy beat’. We are at a pivotal moment in the history of privacy rights, and we have yet to adequately grapple with the challenges posed by Big Data, surveillance capitalism, the Internet of Things, and the security state. We need more detailed, forward-thinking journalism in this area, and other media organizations would do well to follow in The Tyee’s footsteps.

By Mike Larsen (President of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association)

Bill C-51: An Attack on Privacy

Photo under CC license by Wikipedia Commons
Photo under CC license by Wikipedia Commons

Bill C-51 continues its high speed trip through Parliament, rocketing through the Commons and now being rushed through the Senate.

This bill has generated a level of controversy since its introduction in parliament, reminiscent of the outrage that accompanied the much-despised online spying bill brought in by former Public Safety minister Vic Toews. The government’s Anti-Terrorism Bill has been widely criticized for fundamentally changing Canada’s legal and security systems in a way that deeply compromises rights and freedoms.

The bill puts forward a remarkably broad definition of “security” that includes “interference” with “critical infrastructure” or with “the economic or financial stability of Canada.” This definition would allow an astounding array of activities to be susceptible to government scrutiny or interference. The bill includes provisions to criminalize speech that is divorced from any intent to commit “terrorist” activities. The expansion of “no-fly” lists and an extension of CSIS’s powers without a correlated expansion of review and oversight are additional issues of concern.

The list of activities that may “undermine the security of Canada”, as defined by Bill C-51, is accompanied by a fundamental change in the scope and scale of the state’s surveillance apparatus that constitutes nothing less than an attack on privacy. It is for this reason that, as privacy expert Michael Geist states, “virtually everyone in Canada’s privacy community opposes it.”

Photo under CC license by Flickr: Tamara Herman
Photo under CC license by Flickr: Tamara Herman

Embedded within the lengthy text of Bill C-51 is the “Security of Canada Information Sharing Act (SCISA).” The SCISA would allow information-sharing across 17 government departments for a wide range of purposes that fall outside of what most Canadians would consider even remotely related to “terrorism.” In one of the minor improvements to the bill, the government introduced an amendment to remove the word “lawful”, which would have captured “unlawful activities like illegal strikes or civil
disobedience within the scope of the new measures. Equally problematic is the fact that the SCISA would allow big-data propelled information sharing by government departments, taking advantage of weaknesses in the outdated Privacy Act.

In terms of accountability, the various intelligence review bodies themselves have stated that they do not have the means to keep up with the expanded role being proposed in C-51. Furthermore, the watchdogs have complained that they are not able to coordinate their review capabilities, which is an even bigger problem since the security agencies are doing more and more of their work jointly. And these are review bodies – only looking at things after the fact. The Harper Government got rid of the CSIS Inspector General, who flagged operational problems with the spy agency, in 2012. In FIPA’s submission on Bill C-51, we argue that even the successor to the infamous War Measures Act provides more opportunities for oversight and consultation than Bill C-51, and that would be in an actual time of war.

Professors Craig Forcese and Kent Roach’s in-depth examination of Bill C-51 includes a chapter on the SCISA in which they argue that the Act would authorize a “total information awareness” approach that constitutes a “radical departure from conventional understandings of privacy.”

Incredibly, Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien was not called as a witness in the Commons Committee hearings on Bill C-51, but was finally called to testify in the Senate. He told the upper house that the “bill would potentially lead to disproportionately large amounts of personal information of ordinary, law-abiding citizens being collected and shared. This sets up the prospect of profiling and Big Data analytics on all Canadians. In short, the means chosen are excessive to achieve the end.”

Furthermore, every single Privacy Commissioner in Canada – with the exception of New Brunswick – joined Therrien in signing a joint letter opposing the Bill, stating the SCISA would “significantly expand the power of the state to surveil and profile ordinary, law-abiding Canadians.” The letter points out that massive state surveillance “would be inconsistent with the rule of law in our democratic state and contrary to the expectations of Canadians.”

The government responded to growing opposition by proposing amendments, most of which have been widely dismissed as failing to respond to fundamental critiques of the Bill. Meanwhile, pressure continues to mount to scrap the Bill, with early support for the bill melting like spring snow once Canadians became more aware of what it actually contained. A recent Forum poll indicates that barely half of those surveyed supported stronger anti-terrorism laws, and of those who said they were aware of bill C-51, 56% disapproved of the bill while only 33 percent approved. The poll also found that 40% of people in the Conservative stronghold of Alberta now oppose the bill.

For more information, to write to your MP or sign a petition: https://stopc51.ca


B.C. government’s ID Card ‘consultation’ literally won’t take no for an answer

The B.C. government last week announced a fast-tracked consultation process for the new BC Services Card and the government’s digital services strategy. The consultation will centre on a panel of randomly selected British Columbians, who will have until Christmas to hand in a report. Public input on the process must be submitted by August 22nd.

However FIPA, along with the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) are concerned that the proposed consultation needs major changes in order to make it meaningful. In a letter (available here) we highlighted a number of impediments to the incorporation of public input.

The biggest issue is that the panel is specifically denied the ability to recommend the Card program be stopped, even if it finds that is the best course of action. Secondly, British Columbians not selected for the panel will only be able to give their input electronically, in response to government-written scenarios. In essence, the public is not able to effectively participate in this so-called consultation, but rather can only choose from a set of government-sanctioned responses.

The BC Services Card is a key part of the BC government’s broader “e-government” strategy– a comprehensive identity management system meant to facilitate online access to government services and the integration of databases that contain citizen’s personal information. The government launched the cards in mid-February, but Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham insisted the government conduct a “fulsome” consultation before the next phase of implementation.

British Columbians need to be heard on this issue, and they should be able to express themselves as they see fit. That’s how the government gets the best advice from citizens – not by restricting what a citizen panel is allowed to conclude.

The fact the government won’t let the consultation recommend putting a stop to the program speaks volumes about how worried they are. If they genuinely want British Columbians to have a say, they would leave all options open.

The public only has until August 22nd to submit comments on how the consultation will operate. If you are concerned about the BC ID Card, take a look at the comments we submitted, and make sure your voice is heard by emailing your thoughts to CitizenEngagement@gov.bc.ca by August 22.

To read media coverage of this issue, take a look at this article in the Vancouver Sun and in the Tyee.