Edward Snowden did us all a favour, it's time to curb the snooping

Thanks to whistleblower Edward Snowden, the most stunning global lesson these last months has been the extent of the state's assault on privacy, Brian Stewart writes. But getting the spy genie back into so many bottles won't be easy.

Will Obama put new restrictions on the NSA? What will Canada do?

A Washington Metro bus is shown here in December with an Edward Snowden sign on its side. Meanwhile, a White House-appointed panel proposed curbs on some key NSA surveillance operations, putting the ball in Barack Obama's court. (Reuters)

For some of us, the great shock of the past year was the revelation that whistleblowers like Edward Snowden were not, after all, wildly exaggerating the dangers of intelligence agencies run amok.

Even those who encouraged Snowden's revelations seem stunned by how far the state's assault on privacy has gone.

And the great challenge for Western democracies this year — assuming they are up for it — will be to wrestle back oversight control over a too-secretive world that most of us barely comprehend.

Getting the spy genie back into so many bottles, however, won't be easy.

Jacob Appelbaum, an independent security expert and Snowden confidante, told technology experts in Hamburg last week that the U.S. National Security Agency's high-tech spying gear is "even worse than your worst nightmares."

He says new exposes will show the NSA can turn iPhones into eavesdropping "bugs" and has unlimited ability to break into our computers.

True or not, that deep pessimism is echoed by British security analyst and former MI5 whistleblower Annie Machon. She sees a nightmare reality in which all governments have let secret agencies spy on virtually anyone they want and on each other without limits.

"Indeed, not only have we learned that we are all under constant electronic surveillance, but these politicians are targeted, too," she wrote in a recent column for RT publication. "We are all now targets."

Lack of oversight

Sound paranoid? Well it certainly did once when it came from the so-called alarmist factions.

But now it is the tech giants themselves, important corporate citizens like Microsoft and Apple denouncing government snooping as an "advanced persistent threat" alongside other baddies like malware and cyber-espionage.

They demanded that President Barack Obama act to end the wholesale vacuuming of information that threatens "to seriously undermine confidence in the security and privacy of online communications."

German demonstrators lobby for asylum for Edward Snowden in front of the Reichstag. The whole world was watching. (Tobias Schwarz / Reuters)

It is no longer radical to be alarmed that trillions of records of phone calls and emails have been maintained for years now in massive government "haystacks" — just in case.

Also, no one can take comfort in thinking that such Orwellian excesses are unique to the U.S., given all the secret intel networks operating around the world.

Similar fears have flared in Europe. They have led to security scandals in Britain, and heated debates over the lack of oversight in France, where the legislature has actually voted to expand the already extensive electronic surveillance of French businesses and residents for national security reasons.

The portion the French legislature has chosen to regulate, Le Monde reporter Laurent Borredon writes, is only "the tip of an iceberg."

Somnolent Canada

Meanwhile, here in Canada, parliamentarians appear remarkably somnolent when it comes to keeping tabs on our own main intelligence services, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the even more secretive electronic spy agency, the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC).

For years, MPs in all parties have shown astonishingly little interest in ensuring effective oversight of those who spy in Canada's name. They are least curious about CSEC, which runs a massive spy operation and is one of the world's leading eavesdroppers when it comes to global communications.

However, few who know anything about our intel world have much confidence in the routine assurances that our system always operates to the letter of the law.

"The notion [of oversight of CSEC ] is more like a prayer than any kind of constructive statement of fact," Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, one of the few legislators to take security matters seriously, said recently.

In Canada's case, oversight amounts to only one commissioner with a staff of no more than six investigators confronting a profoundly secretive 2,000-strong CSEC that handles millions of communications a day.

This ensures that effective oversight is an illusion, albeit one our government seems happy to live with.

Wake-up call

But today we live in an "age of exposure" in which the secret world itself is being caught out by damaging revelations.

Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff demanded answers from the U.S. and Canadian governments after leaked documents from Edward Snowden said the NSA and Canada's CSEC targeted Brazil's state-run oil firm Petrobras. (Associated Press)

Both CSEC and CSIS are now tangled in separate allegations of possible rogue operations and abuse of powers.

First, we learned in the fall that CSEC was spying electronically on the mining operations of a friendly power, Brazil. Then, further Snowden revelations showed that our eavesdroppers have been doing NSA bidding by targeting the communications of at least 20 countries, including close friends.

A former head of CSEC, John Adams, recently admitted to the CBC's Greg Weston that we're not immune from the practices causing a furor in the U.S. and Britain, including the gathering of huge amounts of telephone and email metadata.

While denying any of these acts are illegal, Adams agreed that Canadians need more oversight of our intelligence system and currently don't know much about CSEC.

"There's no question that CSEC is very, very biased towards the less the public knows the better," he conceded.

The same can be said of its partner in stealth, CSIS, which has just been rebuked by a federal court judge for enlisting foreign intelligence allies in 2009 to spy on Canadians abroad, which CSIS itself cannot legally do.

There may have been legitimate security reasons for CSIS to do this kind of spying — it often has to lean on the services of foreign intelligence agencies. 

But such is the growing distrust surrounding these groups now that cases like this are only seen as the hint of worse to come.

The key issue here is control of the spy genie. In the U.S., Obama is expected to put new restrictions on the NSA's collection of personal metadata, and may well install more demanding judicial oversight of domestic surveillance.

It's not at all clear, however, whether espionage on friendly nations will be curtailed given the U.S. belief that "everyone does it."

Our own parliament surely needs to rouse itself enough to expose the current myth of effective government oversight of our intelligence services.

That would be a significant test of its political relevance for it would require discovering, perhaps for the first time, the true face of Canadian espionage at home and abroad. 


Brian Stewart

Canada and abroad

Brian Stewart is one of this country's most experienced journalists and foreign correspondents. He sits on the advisory board of Human Rights Watch Canada. He was also a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. In almost four decades of reporting, he has covered many of the world's conflicts and reported from 10 war zones, from El Salvador to Beirut and Afghanistan.