The Panoptic World

Huron Historic Gaol was once a prison complex for the Huron County of Upper Canada. The prison was designed by Thomas Young and modeled after Bentham’s Panopticon. The Panopticon, named after a hundred eyed giant watchman from Greek mythology called Panoptes, is an institutional structure where a watchman can observe all inhabitants anonymously. Although the Huron County Gaol Jail now serves only as a prison museum (and is a National Historic Site of Canada), the clandestine construction of a billion dollar headquarters in Ottawa for the Communications Security Establishment of Canada (CSEC), an obscure Canadian intelligence agency, is a testament to the fact that Bentham’s dream has not died, but has evolved into a dangerous concept, that of mass surveillance via the internet, in which Canada is a key yet often overlooked participant.

The 2013 National Security Agency (NSA) leaks by Edward Snowden put a spotlight on American global and domestic surveillance practices, but not enough scrutiny was cast on the other members of the Five Eyes, particularly Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Canada has multiple defense agreements like NORAD and PJBD with its southern neighbor, but the cooperation between the two countries extends to matters such as indiscriminate bulk surveillance. And to aggravate the matter, there has been little response from the Canadian media into the complicity of its government concerning the potential illicit spying of its citizen.

From the cache of documents that Snowden leaked to journalist Glenn Greenwald (and Laura Poitras), there have been to date only small glimpses into the shrouded world of Canadian signals intelligence. The most damning of these was the revelation that Canada had allowed the NSA to set up a surveillance operation in the country during the 2010 G8 and G20 summits. Light was also cast upon the nature of the relationship between CSEC and the NSA; in a redacted NSA document the spy agency describes how it colludes with the CSEC in “targeting approximately 20 high-priority countries”. The cooperation of CSEC is highly valuable in such situations since the NSA can exploit Canada’s benign reputation internationally to access areas not available to the Americans as detailed in the same document: “CSEC shares with the NSA their unique geographic access to areas unavailable to the U.S”. To remunerate the CSEC for their services, the NSA provides them with “technological developments, cryptologic capabilities, software and resources for state-of-the-art collection, processing and analytic efforts, and IA capabilities”. In fact, Canada was the fourth largest recipient of aid from the NSA behind only Pakistan, Jordan, and Ethiopia in 2012 as publicized in another leaked Snowden document.

Although the CSEC claims that it is illegal for the agency to monitor Canadian citizens or anyone in Canada, it admits to incidentally intercepting communications of Canadians. This inspires little confidence in what the CSEC might be doing behind closed doors, particularly after the CSEC along with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) misled a court in 2009 that issued warrants for the special surveillance of two Canadian citizens. Assurances were given to the court by the CSIS that the intercepts would be carried out by Canadian agencies from within Canada, but unbeknownst to the presiding judge, Richard Mosley, the CSIS and CSEC asked for the assistance and involvement of foreign intelligence groups. Mosley was clearly not pleased as he offered his thoughts in a redacted court document, “The failure to disclose that information was the result of a deliberate decision to keep the court in the dark about the scope and extent of the foreign collection efforts that would flow from the court’s issuance of a warrant”.

Despite a rich history of protection legislature for whistleblowers, the United States continues to aggressively pursue incarceration of whistleblowers remotely related to national security using the Espionage Act. These actions are damaging to the credibility of the involved organizations since whistleblowing plays a fundamental part in preventing an institution from abusing its power. Protection measures for whistleblowers working in Canadian intelligence and defense institutions are subject to even greater apprehension. Three Canadian federal departments; the Canadian Forces, CSIS, and CSEC were exempted from a federal whistle blowers protection law that came into effect in 2007. The three departments were required to setup internal review systems to handle disclosures and to provide adequate security to the informants. To satisfy these miserly requirements, the CSIS and CSEC took almost 4 years, while the Canadian Forces took 6 years to set up just a disclosure process. The indifference displayed by these agencies to ensure transparency within their respective institution is worrisome. Just as Hermes, son of Zeus, overcame the giant with a hundred eyes, the Canadian citizenry must also be more proactive and demand greater accountability from their security agencies and government departments that claim to oversee them. The cost of complacency can be hefty, as is evident from the Snowden leaks in the US. In the words of Orwell, “Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious”.

Haider Riaz is a Physics and Computer Science major at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. Alongside his research interests in science, he is also intrigued by socio-techonological topics such as the erosion of privacy in the internet age and its potential effects on society. He is also a cricket history enthusiast and occasionally writes about the idiosyncrasies of the game. Read other articles by Haider.