Do you worry about the collection and logging of your personal data?

NSA - Germany (Reuters)

NSA - Germany (Reuters)


Is Big Brother watching?  News that the US government has been logging the phone and Internet usage of Americans surprised many.  Now it seems it might involve Canadians too.

With businesses tracking your every click online, and governments interested in who you contact you feel data mining is going too far?

With guest host Harry Forestell

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The year I turned 16, I applied for and received my very own social insurance number. That plastic card with its unique numeric code was a proud moment on the road to adulthood. But I also remember my father's grim warning at the time. "Guard that number" he told me. "Don't let anyone have it. They'll use it to track you and access your bank accounts and government files."

My father's fear wasn't uncommon for his post-war generation. A conviction that credit card companies, insurance firms and even shadowy government agencies might collect and collate the details of my ordinary existence. I put it down to paranoia... a fear of Orwellian dimensions, that the state would one day know our most intimate thoughts. Today, my father's warning seems prescient, if a little quaint.

It's generally accepted that our every electronic transaction is logged and examined somewhere. From the digital eyes tracking our keystrokes, to the data collection companies and search engines working their algorithmic magic on every Google search or online purchase we make, there's a lucrative industry monitoring our internet habits to better anticipate our needs and desires.

Still, the revelations over the past week of secret government programs harvesting vast swaths of our online intelligence, are truly breathtaking.

Big Brother... meet Big Data.

Until a few days ago most of us had never heard of Edward Snowdon, or used the word metadata in polite conversation.

Snowdon, we now know, is the National Security Agency whistleblower and fugitive, who last week tore the covers off a vast US government surveillance operation. A covert program cross-referencing millions of private telephone records with billions of personal data points. All gleaned from metadata, the electronic spoor we leave behind in our cellular and internet meanderings... a trail of virtual breadcrumbs showing where we went, what we bought, how we paid, who we connected with, and how many times we did it.

Turns out US security agencies have been mining these data for years. Using top secret court orders to quietly compel telephone companies, internet service providers and social media sites to share our digital DNA. All in the name of post- 9/11 national security.

It now appears our own government may be implicated too. Another shadowy bureaucracy, C-SEC, or Communications Security Establishment Canada, has itself been mining the data of unsuspecting netizens and possibly sharing it with intelligence agencies of foreign allies. All approved by ministerial directive, out of reach of parliamentary oversight.

This week's revelations are alarming enough for Canada's privacy commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, that she's promised an investigation.

The intelligence agencies involved have been soothing in their reassurances. They're not snooping on the content of our electronic communications we're told, just their frequency, duration and destination. Only foreign communications are being monitored. A little state intrusion is a small price to pay if it keeps us all safer. And my favorite line from a US senator involved in intelligence oversight... "If you're not getting a call from a terrorist organization, you got nothing to worry about."

But are you worried?

What do you think of government tracking the electronic trails created by our telephone calls, emails and online interactions?

Does it matter that they are not listening-in or reading the content of your messages but just logging when you send them and to whom? Are you reassured or alarmed by the massive security infrastructure assembled to mine our data? Does it make any difference when they say they have broken up terrorist plots in 20 nations by using such data to identify networks of dangerous people?

Do you trust government agencies to limit their access to your private communications? Should our own government be protecting us from the online snooping of foreign allies? Does it even matter in an era when many surrender their most intimate details to online businesses and social media sites?

Our question today: "Do you worry about the collection and logging of your personal data?"

I'm Harry Forestell ...On CBC Radio One and on Sirius XM satellite radio channel 169 ...this is Cross Country Checkup.


  • Wesley Wark
    Visiting professor at the University of Ottawa's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. He completed a study for the Federal Privacy Commissioner on electronic surveillance issues in 2012. His most recent book is Secret Intelligence: A Reader. He is working on a new book on Spy Power-a study of the rise of intelligence agencies from World War One to the present.

  • Micheal Vonn
    Lawyer and policy director of the BC Civil Liberties Association; Advisory Board Member of Privacy International.

  • Michael Geist
    Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. Author of the textbook, Internet Law in Canada. Dr. Geist serves on the Privacy Commissioner of Canada's Expert Advisory Board.

  • Jonathan Kay
    Columnist and comment pages editor of the National Post.


National Post

Globe and Mail

Michael Geist

British Columbia Civil Liberties Association

The Guardian

Washington Post

Wall Street Journal

Electronic Frontier Foundation

The Atlantic

The New Republic



Most people don't seem to care about government snooping given the lack of outrage. They seem so eager to display their lives on Facebook and blogs anyway. If one is not a pervert or criminal, why fear the police? I think most people would be annoyed if the police were not tracking their every move, as if they were of no importance. Maybe people should help the police by friending their local police department! The ones who don't friend the police obviously would be the ones the police really need to look into their activities. A poster of a handsome/beautiful police officer with the motto "have you friended him/her today?" could be displayed in public areas. After all, you have nothing to hide, do you?

St. John's, Newfoundland


The Prism system is the 1970's Echelon system, plus 40 years of black budgets, a decade of which were post-9/11 black budgets. Or, has Echelon been forgotten? Big Brother is still watching, and is limited only by the unavailability of a sufficient number of trusted consultants and an overburdened justice system.

Ottawa, Ontario


"Maintaining National security" is propaganda code for protecting big finance and big corporations and the politicians they bought, from ordinary citizens who object to being cheated and exploited.

Mission, British Columbia


One could assume terrorists will work hard to avoid and disguise their on-line and electronic presence and be completely successful. And wouldn't this in effect nullify the efforts of the government to spy on unsuspecting and completely innocent citizens? If so, the mountain of data collected and stored in perpetuity is itself a potential threat to a free society.

Canton Melbourne, Quebec 


The people complaining about government snooping will be the same people complaining when law enforcement officials fail to detect future terror plots before it's too late.

London, Ontario


Former 40-year veteran NSA senior official William Binney resigned in 2001 when the massive surveillance program first came in. He said that virtually no one was exempt from personal data recording, even judges. Thus all government and court officials could be leveraged by access to selections from their personal conversations. The implications are staggering.

Let's go back to first principles and let the public decide, in a full debate, whether these programs are appropriate in a democracy or not. It would appear, from the million-plus (on-line) signatures supporting Edward Snowden that a groundswell of people are opposed to them.

Victoria, British Columbia


I hate that we have so little control over our data. We don't give it voluntarily, it is extorted by providing services only if one agrees to share personal information. Yes, I can read the conditions before I check the agreement box, but like 70 per cent of Canadians, I failed legalese in high school. Yes, I can say no, but then I will sit alone with my outdated and limited ways of doing things. Do I trust anyone with my information? Nothing today shows me a reason to. There is so much mishandling of power, money and our resources. Why would private information be any different?

Timmins, Ontario


I have been involved with computers since 1966. The big fuss about Project Prism is surprising since It is just a small subset of Project Echelon that has been going on since 1947. I first learned about Project Echelon from the CBC show As It Happens when they interviewed a former MI5 agent. He revealed that all international calls were recorded, subjected to voice recognition, and the conversation scanned for key words. If the key words were found, a transcript of the conversation was printed out including the originating and receiving phone numbers. He said that they were limited by the lack of computer power and so they weren't able to monitor all calls made within Britain. He said that with more computer power they would be able to do voice recognition so that whenever a person picked up a phone and called, they would be able to identify the person. If it was a person of interest they could notify the nearest police station of the identity and location of the suspect. Since computers are vastly more powerful these days, you can imagine what the current stat eof the art is - despite the supposedly protective privacy laws.

Brandon, Manitoba


Of course I'm not bothered by this watching going on. (I felt compelled to say that as you're probably not the only one reading this.)

London, Ontario


I believe this issue of surveillance is being argued from an incorrect starting point. Presumption of innocence requires  authorities to prove, without my input, any wrong doing on my part. My personal information is not accesable to the authorities without at least prima farcie demonstration of wrong doing. Big data surveillance presumes guilt and then disqualifies the innocent from further action. This is a fundamental and profound argument against this line of action.
Burnaby, British Columbia


I think there is no comparison between the voluntary disclosure of information to businesses in return for a service, and the arbitrary and unregulated collection of information by government.  Particularly, in light of the immense power of government and governments' history of abusing its power. Businesses merely profit, they don't order drone strikes.

Toronto, Ontario


The fact that this is even debatable angers and saddens me. Our acceptance of this level of state supervision cheapens the very democracy that the authorities are trying to protect. The surveillance of private citizens in a liberal democracy is repugnant.

British Columbia


I'd like to point out that although the government is creating a massive database, all (from my understanding) of the information is coming from businesses that are already collecting it, generally to provide better service. My unease is that the entire world is now aware that (for each country implicated) a veritable master list of all its communications exists. If used for good, it is an excellent tool, which could be very benificial. It's what happens if or when  the data falls into the wrong hands that is of great concern.



The over-the-top American paranoia around their real and imagined enemies should not be driving what we do within Canada. The world is fundamentally a safe place and any other world view will result in a breakdown in our Canadian freedoms. Our government should not be surveilling us in a blanket manner.

Calgary, Alberta


The data collection is going to happen, if not by government then by commercial interests with the former forcing the latter to share. The problem is not the data but what is done with it. Most of the examples (Mahar Arar comes to mind) are illegal, often criminal, abuses of that data. What we need is some transparent oversight with teeth.

Newboro, Onotario


I'm an Internet marketer I can track users coming to sites I manage, I can track google's visit as well. I can also track users in real-time when they visit sites I do manage with software that can see their mouse moving to see where they click or not for marketing purposes. Tell your listeners to use the world's most private search engine ( which is owned by Dr. Katherine Albrecht who is also a privacy advocate.

Vancouver, British Columbia


I think we also need to acknowledge that the definition of a threat to the state has changed. Even if you're someone who has nothing to hide you can be perceived as a threat and the facts manipulated to warrant arrest, prosecution, etc. We don't need to be a technical "terrorist" to be regarded as a threat to the state. Even people who stand up for animal rights/anti-animal cruelty protestors are regarded as a threat to the state. That's one example of the nature of our surveillance state. This is a real, legitimate concern.



I see this playing out as follows: Once the supercomputers start collecting the raw data, a second level of software begins looking for patterns - who is routinely communicating with whom, when, how often, etc. Now, suppose I begin communicating online with someone over a mutual interest, say baseball cards. Suppose that unbeknownst to me, perhaps to us both, that person is already on a U.S. watch list, for reasons valid or invalid. Now, as part of his pattern, I become a person of interest. Suppose we use certain jargon of the baseball card collecting world. The computer can't know everything about everything, so it interprets this jargon as possible code words, used for a potentially nefarious purpose.  Suppose I happen to mention by the by, that I saw a certain movie and that it was a "bomb." The intensity of surveillance goes up again. By now, perhaps my banking information is being watched to see if I'm buying anything suspicious, and so on. Even worse, because the computer, programmed to be paranoid, goes on looking for patterns, some of my friends begin to come under surveillance. It used to be that the government needed probable cause to watch you. Now the meaning of that term has been pushed to such an extreme as to be meaningless, along with the presumption of innocence.

Toronto, Ontario


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