Sunday, December 18, 2005

Smile, are we still on Candid Camera!

With all the discussion of domestic surveillance in the US this weekend, you would think that it was a practice that has just commenced. But in reality this isn't really a ground breaking announcement. In fact, considering all the excitement of the last 48 hours, it seems timely to look back at a Sixty Minutes transcript from March of 2000, pre 9-11 and how even back then, we routinely could find our correspondences investigated for troublesome behavior.

Back then they had an interesting look at the process of eavesdropping and how Canada was providing services to the USA's NSA in its quest for terrorists, criminals and other ne'er do wells.

The only problem is a lot of other folks are finding their correspondences routinely screened and information compiled regarding their everyday communications. The Top Secret (well I guess until the Sixty Minutes report aired back then) program was (and most likely still is) called Echelon and is used by the USA, Canada, United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia to process details of e mails, phone calls, data transfers and even baby monitors for possible illegal activity. (How many babies planning trouble before those terrible three's, is no doubt a topic of much discussion in the land of electronic surveillance, but one pities the poor operative given that thankless job )

The main subject of the segment was information provided by a former employee of Canada's CSE, who explained how Canada's monitoring agency worked and what they were looking for. He recounted how the computer programs picked up a conversation between a mother and her friend critiquing her sons performance in a school play, she apparently said that he "bombed" that night and bingo, her conversation was flagged for further analysis. In this season of Christmas concerts be careful how you describe your young ones night of stardom (or your drinking habits for that matter), lest you find yourself on an open file in Ottawa!

He also explained how the Canadian agency in the past, spied on citizens of the United Kingdom at the behest of Margaret Thatcher. It seems that Madam Thatcher was suspicious of two of her cabinet ministers and asked the CSE to check them out. They did, reported back but gave her a cloak of anonymity as in this case the United Kingdom was not actively spying on its own citizens but the required information was provided as requested.

The I'll scratch your back, if you'll scratch mine system provides each country with a veil of deniability should anyone begin to question the optics of spying on your own people. Though in the post 9/11 world that really isn't much of an impediment to the cause of total information surveillance.

The increasing frequency of regularly examining even our most mundane correspondences is a worrisome trend for our civil liberties and one that should be addressed more publicly for us. Somehow we think that the mother discussing her child's play should not be tagged as a potential terrorist. The sense of accountability is lacking currently, with innocent people finding their names flagged for future examination. A watch list if you will.

Criminals and terrorists are obviously fair game for the likes of the Echelon program, but keeping a steady hand on the reins of the program should be the guiding principle for the government. It would be worth knowing if Canada is still heavily involved in the program and if we continue to regularly log our citizens conversations, what the process is for seeking that information and what the government does with it should the target be of no national threat. Those babies on the monitor are now heading into their seventh year, how many of them should we be worried about for future wrong doing?

The world today is an even more troubled place than it was on the broadcast day for this segment. There is a need for information about those that wish us ill will, but there's just as much a need, if not more of a need, for the protection of our civil rights.

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