Some people believe that Edward Snowden is a traitor and would haul him into a U.S. court if they could get their hands on him. However, countless others believe that Snowden, a young technician who exited the National Security Agency (NSA) with a mountain of data, is a hero in the tradition of Daniel Ellsberg, who a generation ago blew the whistle on how the Pentagon and American presidents lied to their people about the war they were conducting in Vietnam. After blowing the whistle on the NSA in June 2013, Snowden fled from the U.S. and was eventually granted temporary asylum in Russia. Snowden, then 29, had been working as a NSA contractor in Hawaii. He had access to a myriad of sensitive documents and what he saw disturbed him deeply. As quoted recently in the New York Review of Books, he said: “You realize that’s the world you helped create and it’s gonna get worse with the next generation and the next generation who extend the capabilities of this sort of architecture of oppression.”
Spying and cover ups
Snowden’s revelations have exposed a massive campaign of spying and subsequent cover ups by NSA. He reveals, for example, that the NSA intercepted the cell phone calls of German chancellor Angela Merkel and spied on Brazil, both considered to be nations friendly to the U.S. Other of Snowden’s material indicates that the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) cooperates closely with the NSA. For example, CSEC helped the NSA to spy on leaders of a number of countries during the G20 meetings in Toronto in 2010.
President Obama was forced to apologize to Germans, Brazilians and other nations, and in January 2013 he announced that he was ordering changes to the way in which NSA operates and how it is overseen. There has been no such candour from the Conservative government in Ottawa regarding CSEC.
Cold rage and warm praise
Snowden’s exposés have prompted a cold rage among the offending agencies and some politicians. Snowden may yet pay a heavy price for doing what he believes is right but he has also won much support. Two Norwegian politicians have nominated Snowden for the Nobel peace prize, saying that his actions have led to a “more stable and peaceful world order.”
Closer to home, Brian Stewart, the former CBC TV correspondent and expert in security, has expressed a cautious admiration for Snowden. Stewart, who is now a fellow at the Munk Centre for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, wrote, “For some of us, the great shock of the past year was the revelations that whistleblowers like Edward Snowden were not, after all, wildly exaggerating the dangers of intelligence agencies run amok.”
The NSA is authorized to gather foreign intelligence that relates to threats to national security but it is not allowed to collect information on Americans. The information leaked by Snowden, however, shows that NSA has indeed run programs that collected detailed information on hundreds of millions of Americans.
Alan Rushbridger is editor of The Guardian newspaper in England, which has published articles based on Snowden’s revelations. He says this: “The apparent aim is to store all of the signals all of the time – that means all digital life, including Internet searches and all the phone calls, texts and emails we make and send to each other.” Matthew Aid, a U.S. military historian, says, “The NSA is intercepting the [information] equivalent of four Library of Congresses every hour.”
It is difficult to believe that the “vacuuming” of all of this data is possible, but apparently it is — and it likely could not be collected without the cooperation of phone companies and internet providers. For example, the American giant Verizon, which was planning to expand into Canada until it changed its mind last year, admitted that it cooperated with the NSA in providing information about its customers.
In Canada, a group of academics has sent a public letter to Canada’s leading telecommunications companies, asking them to reveal the extent to which they have handed customer data over to our police and security services. So far, they have received no reply.
Spy agencies and many politicians justify this electronic snooping in the name of national security and protecting our countries against terrorist attacks. Most people would agree that the state does have to undertake surveillance in certain circumstances, but in the aftermath of attacks on America in September 2001 and other attacks elsewhere security agencies have demanded and received ever more resources. Some have also broken their country’s laws and subverted the democratic oversight of their operations. They are looking for a terrorist needle in a haystack of electronic data – and we are that haystack.
Much of this information is called metadata, which includes, for example, information about who you called on your smart phone and when, or to whom and when, you sent an email. The data could also include information about what websites you visit in searches for information or to purchase books, music and tickets. One knowledgeable former NSA official says, “If you have enough metadata, you don’t really need content … ”
In Canada, CSEC also has a mandate to collect foreign intelligence, but not to spy on Canadians – that job is left to CSIS and is supposed to occur only under exceptional circumstances. The Snowden information revealed that CSEC had spied on Brazil’s Ministry of Mines and Energy. This has nothing to do with terrorism and everything to do with industrial espionage of the kind that countries in the West accuse the Chinese or the Russians of doing. One must conclude that CSEC’s information on Brazil was to be shared with Canada’s mining sector.
The latest scandal, based on more of Snowden’s material and reported by the CBC’s Greg Weston, indicates that CSEC used the free Wi-Fi services provided at two unnamed Canadian airports to collect information from the wireless devices of thousands of airline passengers. The exercise did not collect the content, but rather metadata from the wireless devices of unwitting airline passengers.
This revelation came as a shock to those who follow security matters. Ron Diebert, a professor at the Munk school in Toronto and the author of a well-received book on internet surveillance and privacy, told the CBC: “I can’t see any circumstances in which this would not be unlawful, under current Canadian law, under our Charter, under CESC’s mandates.”
When questioned about CSEC in the House of Commons, Defence Minister Rob Nicholson repeats the mantra that CSEC is not allowed to break the law. That evades the question of whether the agency did, nonetheless, break the law. And If CSEC’s actions did not break the law, then perhaps the law should be changed to better protect the privacy of Canadians.
While the Americans have standing Congressional committees that oversee the NSA (albeit poorly), there is no such committee in Canada. CSEC is overseen by a single commissioner, a retired judge with a small staff, and his after-the-fact reports are only submitted to parliament after they have been vetted by the same defence minister who is in charge of approving CSEC’s intelligence gathering activities in the first place.
Ann Cavoukian, Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner, is outspoken in her criticism. “While our U.S. neighbours are debating the future of phone and Internet surveillance programs,” she wrote in The Globe and Mail, “our government is maintaining a wall of silence around the activities of [CSEC]. This silence is putting our freedoms at risk.”
Asylum for Snowden
Meanwhile Edward Snowden remains in Russia. The U.S. wants him back to put him on trial and his future is uncertain. The group Avaaz.org has launched an online petition aimed at having Brazil grant asylum to Snowden. Avaaz wants 1.5 million people to sign the petition to the Brazilian president and to date more than one million people have signed on. You can, too, by clicking here.