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The (unofficial) blog of the BCLA Information Policy Committee
Media Democracy Days 2013 was this past weekend in Vancouver and I was glad to be able to attend. In the IPC we’d talked a couple of months ago about trying to get together a screening of the film Terms & Conditions May Apply, and were happily pre-empted from that by the Media Democracy Project showing the movie at the Cinematheque on Friday night. Thanks
Before showing the movie though, Elizabeth Denham talked to the audience about her role as Information and Privacy Commissioner for the province of BC. It was a good talk, which highlighted some of the important reasons citizens should be concerned about their lack of privacy and how their rights are being protected.
Her main themes were transparency and accountability and how those principles are necessary for a democratic government to function. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant” was one of the phrases she used. This led into a discussion of how every scandal one can think of in government has an Access to Information angle to it. It’s the perception of secrecy by those people in power that messes everything up, because an informed citizenry knows you shouldn’t just rely on the goodwill of the folks making up whatever government is in power at any given time.
One of the things she discussed was how new democracies are so much better at enshrining laws about transparency and privacy regulation than older, more established democracies. When a country makes a constitution now, privacy rights are clearly seen as fundamental and get strong wording to protect them (in theory – she didn’t provide any specific examples).
The biggest concern Denham had for the future was the complacency of our citizens on privacy and transparency issues. keep these issues of privacy in the front of people’s minds. Even though no Canadian Snowden has dropped a bunch of CSEC powerpoint presentations in our laps there should still be a deep concern about the systematic collection of our personal data. Denham encouraged the audience to advocate and politicize this issue, and really, that’s something that librarians have every opportunity to do.
There is a real divide out there between people who have the technical knowledge to deal with privacy invasions and the people without that knowledge. We are out there working with people and their information habits every day. We need to be using the goodwill we create to try to correct the imbalance between what corporations and governments know about us and what we know about them. Denham talked about how important it was to pull back the curtain enshrouding these secret decisions.
Terms & Conditions May Apply is a movie about the things we agree to when we click through End User Licensing Agreements and how much information we are giving away to be used against us later. There were interviews with people from the EFF and the ACLU as well as with people held on pre-crime charges and the British guy who was banned from entering the US because he tweeted about how he was ready to go destroy America.
The movie was completed before Snowden and his big revelations about the NSA, but there was an added-on postscript mentioning it and how much that plays into the rest of the film.
It was a good documentary. If you’ve been immersing yourself in these types of issues there wasn’t a lot of really new stuff, but there was an ambush interview of Mark Zuckerberg, which was done well and used effectively. The weirdest part was that they had Orson Scott Card talking for a few sentences. Thankfully, it wasn’t about his thoughts on homosexuality, but it was a little weird.
Canada’s CSEC agency isn’t as well known as its American counterpart, the NSA, but the Snowden leaks have brought them into the spotlight for their spying efforts. This spying has many questionable aspects, including economic espionage on Brazil, but even more concerning (if you’re Canadian) is how little we know about their spying on Canadians.
Not everyone is content to assume that things can’t be that bad in Canada. The BC Civil Liberties Association has launched a lawsuit against the Canadian government because of CSEC’s unaccountable illegal spying. This is a huge precedent-setting deal.
Watch this space for more of what librarians specifically can do to help (and feel free to make suggestions here, on Twitter or wherever else you feel moved to).
In light of mounting concerns over user privacy and government surveillance of internet activity, the Intellectual Policy Committee is very pleased to announce the launch of the Protect Our Privacy coalition. We are also very proud to say that BCLA is a member – we are the first library association in Canada to participate in this effort.
In partnership with OpenMedia and dozens of other organizations around the country, the coalition centers on the following statement:
More than ever, Canadians need strong, genuinely transparent, and properly enforced safeguards to secure privacy rights. We call on Government to put in place effective legal measures to protect the privacy of every resident of Canada against intrusion by government entities.
Learn more at https://openmedia.ca/ourprivacy
OpenCanada.org has done a bang-up post about NSA-style surveillance in Canada by CSEC entitled Canadian Surveillance 101. Here’s their preamble:
The information leaked by Edward Snowden about the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA)’s data collection programs is driving a nation-wide debate in America over the future of privacy and national security. Americans, however, are not the only ones who should be considering the consequences the NSA’s activities. Other countries, including Canada, operate similar surveillance programs and participate in national security data sharing partnerships that crisscross the globe. Given this reality, and the fact that much of Canadians’ online data flows though servers located in the U.S. where it is not subject to any Fourth Amendment protection, we think the tenor of the privacy-security debate within Canada is too quiet. Expanding the debate will require engaging more Canadians with what we know and don’t know about surveillance in Canada. To this end, here is a modest exploration of what we’ve learned since the Snowden story broke.
As it stands right now, there are three biggish stories going on in the information policy world right now. As is usual with the IPC, access to information is our unifying thread.
First the World Intellectual Property Organization’s treaty that wants to ensure print-disabled citizens can’t have access to materials for them. That’s going on right now. In Canada library organizations are urging Canada’s negotiating team to argue for certain positions:
CULC’s full letter is available here. One of the issues with these treaties and negotiations has to do with our old friend Digital Rights Management (or TPM in Canada) and how the language of these agreements (and Canadian laws) are set up to benefit well-resourced lobbying groups even while there’s some reasonable lip-service paid. So this is an issue.
There’s also rumbling about Library and Archives Canada putting up paywalls on digitized materials. This one doesn’t have anything official out there yet, so we’ll just link to some preparatory ire.
And then thirdly there’s the big American news about the NSA keeping databases of phone calls and the program PRISM that gives the NSA access to internet companies’ information and just today Edward Snowden came forward as the leaker of that NSA information.
There’s a lot out there on these things to read. David Simon (of The Wire fame) wrote about how this PRISM thing isn’t a scandal because this is how the law works. Warrants are still necessary, and do you really want to take these tools out of law enforcement’s hands?
Frankly, I’m a bit amazed that the NSA and FBI have their shit together enough to be consistently doing what they should be doing with the vast big-data stream of electronic communication. For us, now — years into this war-footing and this legal dynamic — to loudly proclaim our indignation at the maintenance of an essential and comprehensive investigative database while at the same time insisting on a proactive response to the inevitable attempts at terrorism is as childish as it is obtuse. We want cake, we want to eat it, and we want to stay skinny and never puke up a thing. Of course we do.
Others are talking about what shoddy journalism these leaked stories are since all the tech companies are denying that they’re participating. And there’s some indication that all these companies are doing is just making the NSA’s job easier within the bounds of the law.
I have some sympathy with David Simon (and John Scalzi, for that matter) when they say that this whole thing is just how the world works and pretending to be surprised now is bullshit. Money and Power and all that. These are the laws we made to create a legal surveillance state. But that doesn’t make it right. (It’s also impossible to feel any sympathy for (and infuriating to see) a government who is trying to make itself out as the gut-wrenched victim though.)
There’ll be more coming. But one of the things to be aware of here is that even though it’s possible the only person who did anything illegal in regards to this whole NSA program is Edward Snowden for leaking it (and it is very interesting that Hong Kong is where he’s hoping to avoid being extradited; the Chinese probably have more clout on that than they were portrayed as in The Dark Knight) that’s a huge problem. We wouldn’t be able to talk about what these surveillance laws hath wrought if someone hadn’t snuck them out. This just highlights the importance of challenging and changing laws to fit the needs of citizens instead of law-enforcement and spy agencies.
Of course, it is possible to talk about these policies even without a scandal of illegality. Michael Geist has a great post (filled with links and analysis) talking about how the issues raised by PRISM apply in Canada:
Does this mean Canadian authorities are engaged in similar forms of surveillance? That phone companies such as Bell and Telus are subject to warrants similar to those faced by Verizon? That Internet companies co-operate with Canadian authorities? That Canadian and U.S. authorities share information obtained through programs such as the Verizon meta-data program or PRISM? That Canadians are targeted by the U.S. programs?
The law would suggest that all of these things are entirely possible. Given the integrated communications networks and the increased information sharing, it seems very likely. Yet since virtually everything remain shrouded in secrecy, Canadians don’t know for sure.
That “shrouded in secrecy” is the problem in all three of these issues we’re talking about today. As information professionals we need to push for more transparency in our laws. We also need to be working with organizations pushing for more privacy for individuals and more openness for governments (and other powerful organizations). This is one of those times we need to be supporting OpenMedia and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Last word for today comes from Edward Snowden:
The primary lesson from this experience was that “you can’t wait around for someone else to act. I had been looking for leaders, but I realised that leadership is about being the first to act.”
What do you think we should do?