Harper’s nominee for Privacy Commissioner must be challenged

The current Canadian government has been in a lot of trouble recently over nominations to various federal offices. It’s been accused of cronyism, overly partisan, inappropriate  and even illegal nominations to senior positions. Many have been rejected. It comes as no surprise then to find that Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, has nominated someone who seems almost entirely inappropriate to be the next federal Privacy Commissioner.

The nominee, Daniel Therrien, has spent almost all his career as a government insider. If Therrien was a privacy expert, this wouldn’t necessary be an obstacle even to someone taking a job which is supposedly an arm’s length position, as much a watchdog on government as a government office.

If he was a privacy expert.

But he’s not.

Therrien’s experience comes mainly in corrections (prisons and parole offices) and latterly with immigration and border issues. He’s currently the Assistant Deputy Attorney General, Public Safety, Defence and Immigration Portfolio, at the Department of Justice. It is in this position that he has had some involvement with privacy issues, and in some ways, this involvement makes his nomination even more troubling.

Therrien was one of the leaders of the Canadian negotiating team that dealt with the privacy principles of the Beyond the Border Accord, the agreement that essentially allows the USA to extend its ‘perimeter’ around Canada (the original proposed version of the agreement was refered to as the North American Perimeter agreement).

So what do the principles say? Essentially they are a vague set of reaffirmations of well-understood data protection principles combined with the recognition of domestic laws. They don’t do anything specific or new. They certainly will not guarantee that sensitive personal information is not shared across borders or provide for genuine protection when they are. And it seems clear that while necessity and proportionality and data quality are all referenced, necessity seems to trump everything else. As the final principle on ‘Retention’ states:

“The United States and Canada are to retain personal information only so long as necessary for the specific purpose for which the information was provided or further used.”

But as we know from almost everything that has happened since 9/11, necessity is the mother of expansion.

In addition, most of the principles also use the phrase “in accordance with their respective domestic laws”, or similar. A paragraph on ‘Effective Oversight’ states

“A system of effective data protection supervision is to exist in the form of a public supervisory authority or authorities with effective powers of intervention and enforcement. These powers may be carried out by a specialized public information protection authority or by more than one supervisory public authority to meet the particular circumstances of different legal systems.”

Translated, this means “business as usual.” Canada can carry on having its system of Commissioners and the USA can carry on having its in-house Privacy Officers. This does nothing to resolve the issue of what happens when privacy laws and systems of oversight are in conflict or incompatible – as they frequently are.

The Prime Minister is quoted in the press release as saying: “­­­­­­­­­­I am pleased that Daniel Therrien has agreed to be nominated for the position of Privacy Commissioner. He is a well-qualified candidate who would bring significant experience in law and privacy issues to the position.”

I guess it all depends what one considers to be ‘significant experience’. He has some experience. But he is neither a privacy lawyer not a privacy expert by training nor has be become such by virtue of his career. And his limited experience is almost entirely in the context of the furthering of neoliberal trade and security agreements with the USA, it is not in domestic privacy protection.

Daniel Therrien may well have had an impeccable professional record. He may well be an excellent Assistant Deputy Attorney General. He may well be a good person. But none of those things are the issue here: Therrien is not “a well qualified candidate” to be the federal Privacy Commissioner. He could, like the current interim Commissioner, Chantal Bernier, legitimately be appointed as Deputy Commissioner in order to build up his qualification in the area. But as the Commissioner? No.

Luckily, this nomination is not a foregone conclusion. It must be approved by both the Senate and House of Commons, and Liberals, NDP and Greens have all voiced concerns already. I am adding my own voice to this in saying that this nomination must be challenged in the most robust terms. Personally, I also think it’s a great shame that the capable and directly experienced Bernier was not given the opportunity to retain the seat that she has only been keeping warm for the next Commissioner…

The Ottawa Statement on Mass Surveillance in Canada

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been working with Michael Vonn of BCCLA on the Ottawa Statement on Mass Surveillance in Canada. This statement was originally crafted on the occasion of the launch of the book Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada / Vivre à nu: la surveillance au Canada, at the ‘Politics of Surveillance Workshop’. This event brought together in Ottawa, Canada, May 9-10, 2014, an international group of academics and advocates to debate the various political, legal, social and technological strategies for challenging mass surveillance, protecting civil liberties and advancing democratic rights. I see this as a minimum set of demands that answers the question ‘what do we do?’ and about how Canadian government needs to respond to the Snowden revelations and the new era of big data and ubiquitous surveillance into which we are rapidly and blindly accelerating…

The Statement reads as follows (and you can also read and sign it here) (in English first, and then French):

Ottawa Statement on Mass Surveillance in Canada


We are entering an age of big data and ubiquitous surveillance. We know:

  • That governments and private corporations routinely collect and sort massive amounts of personal data for multiple reasons from national security to marketing;
  • That there is extensive targeting and profiling of individuals and groups on grounds of race and ethnicity, political and religious views, social class, age, gender, sexual preference and disability;
  • That Canadian privacy and data protection laws and regulations are regularly bypassed, undermined or broken, and are inadequate for dealing with information and privacy rights in the age of big data and ubiquitous surveillance.


We the undersigned are agreed:

1. That all levels of government in Canada must fully respect the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms including the right to privacy, freedom of thought and expression, freedom of association and peaceful assembly, and security against unreasonable search and seizure.

2. That all proposals for changes to information and privacy rights must be presented, justified and debated in a transparent manner. No changes to information and privacy rights and statutory privacy law should ever be embedded in omnibus bills or otherwise hidden in legislation relating to other issues.

3. That the extension of ‘lawful access’ regimes allowing government bodies to collect and/or purchase and store personal data without specific judicial permission, should be halted. All such proposed changes must be subjected to tests of necessity, proportionality, minimality and effectiveness, with the burden of proof being on the government. In addition, security vulnerabilities in communications systems must be addressed and fixed rather than exploited by government agencies.

4. That the powers of provincial and federal privacy commissioners should be commensurate with the quasi-constitutional status of privacy law. Commissioners should have extended powers and appropriate financing and staffing, to initiate investigations, as well as react to complaints, and prosecute and fine state bodies and private companies for breaches of that law.

5. That all state security, intelligence, policing and border agencies must be brought fully under proper legal regulation, judicial authorization, transparency and democratic accountability. While it is necessary for the government to have some secrets and conduct some secret activities, this does not mean that these should be governed by secret law or exceptions from law. In particular:

  • That government agencies must fully disclose the legal definitions of the terms employed for surveillance, the kind of data they gather and the full justifications for surveillance and data gathering.
  • That the government must publically acknowledge all secret international security treaties, agreements and memoranda that require the sharing of personal data, affect free movement and personal security, or place Canadian state surveillance in the service of other sovereign states, international agencies or the private sector.
  • That the government must implement the recommendations of the O’Connor Inquiry into the case of Maher Arar1 including the introduction of integrated oversight and review mechanisms.

6. That negotiations for all new international treaties, agreements and memoranda, including international trade agreements, which might affect information and privacy rights, must be transparent, consistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and privacy law, subject to parliamentary and public scrutiny, and if necessary referred to the Supreme Court.

7. That a full, transparent and participatory public process must begin to create a comprehensive legal framework for information and privacy rights and freedoms, built on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and acknowledging the United Nations’ reaffirmation of privacy as a fundamental human right.2


[1] Security Intelligence Review Committee, Report of the Events Relating to Maher Arar, 2006.
[2] UN General Assembly Resolution, Right to Privacy in the Digital Age, 2013


Déclaration d’Ottawa sur la surveillance de masse au Canada

L’époque qui s’annonce sera marquée par les mégadonnées et l’omniprésente de la surveillance. Nous savons :

  • Que les gouvernements et les entreprises privées font systématiquement la cueillette et le tri d’énormes quantités de données personnelles pour des raisons variées allant de la sécurité nationale à la commercialisation ;
  • Que le ciblage et le profilage des individus et des groupes en fonction de la race, de l’ethnie, de l’opinion politique et religieuse, de la classe sociale, du genre, de l’orientation sexuelle et du handicap est pratique courante ;
  • Que les lois et les règlements de protection de la vie privée et des données personnelles sont régulièrement contournées, sapées ou enfreintes, qu’ils sont insuffisants pour faire respecter le droit à la vie privée et le droit à l’information à notre époque de mégadonnées et de surveillance omniprésente.

Nous sommes d’accords pour affirmer:

1. Que tous les paliers de gouvernements du Canada sont tenus de respecter pleinement la Charte canadienne des droits et libertés, y compris le droit à la vie privée, la liberté de pensée, la liberté d’opinion et d’expression, la liberté d’association et de réunion pacifique, et la protection contre les fouilles, les perquisitions et les saisies abusives.

2. Que tout projet de modification aux libertés, au droit à l’information et au droit à la vie privée doit être présentée, justifié et débattu dans la transparence. Aucune modification au droit à la vie privée, au droit à l’information de même qu’aux lois d’accès à l’information et de protection des renseignements personnels ne devrait être insérée dans un projet de loi omnibus ou autrement camouflée au sein d’un projet de loi portant sur d’autres sujets.

3. Que l’extension des régimes dit d’«accès légal» permettant aux organismes publics de recueillir et/ou d’acheter et de stocker des données personnelles sans devoir obtenir d’autorisation et sans forme de supervision doit être arrêtée. Que toute modification de ce type doit être soumise à un examen visant à démontrer sa nécessité, sa proportionnalité, sa minimalité et son efficacité, le fardeau de la preuve incombant à l’État dans chacun des cas. En outre, les failles de sécurité dans les systèmes de communication doivent être corrigées plutôt qu’exploitées par les organismes publics.

4. Que les pouvoirs des commissaires à la protection de la vie privée, tant au niveau fédéral que provincial, devraient correspondre au statut quasi-constitutionnel des lois de protection des renseignements personnels. Les commissaires devraient donc jouir de pouvoirs étendus, d’un financement et d’un personnel permettant de réaliser des enquêtes, de donner suite aux plaintes, ainsi que de poursuivre et de mettre à l’amende les organismes publics et entreprises privées qui enfreignent la loi.

5. Que les services de sécurité, de renseignement, de police et de douane doivent être soumis à une réglementation, une autorisation judiciaire, une transparence et une reddition de comptes adéquates. Bien qu’il puisse être nécessaire pour un gouvernement de tenir des choses secrètes et de conduire des activités dans le secret, cela ne signifie aucunement que de ces dernières doivent être régies par des lois secrètes ou des exceptions à la loi. En particulier :

  • Que les organismes publics doivent divulguer entièrement les définitions légales des termes employés pour effectuer de la surveillance, le type de données qu’ils recueillent et les justifications complètes de la surveillance et de la cueillette de données.
  • Que le gouvernement doit reconnaître publiquement tous les traités, accords et protocoles qui exigent le partage de données, affectent la libre circulation et la sécurité personnelle ou mettent la surveillance de l’État canadien au service d’autres états souverains, d’autres organisations internationales ou du secteur privé.
  • Que le gouvernement doit mettre en œuvre les recommandations de la Commission d’enquête O’Connor sur les actions des responsables canadiens relativement à Maher Arar1, y compris la mise en place de mécanismes intégrés de supervision et d’examen.

6. Que la négociation de tout nouveau traité, accord ou protocole international, y compris dans le cas d’un accord commercial international, qui pourrait avoir une incidence sur le droit à l’information et le droit à la vie privée, doit être transparente, conforme à la Charte et aux lois sur les renseignements personnels, en plus de faire l’objet d’un examen minutieux de la part du public et du parlement et si nécessaire de la Cours suprême.

7. Qu’un processus complet, transparent et ouvert à la participation du public doit commencer à bâtir un cadre juridique détaillé pour les libertés et les droits relatifs à l’information et à la vie privée, reposant sur la Charte et reconnaissant la réaffirmation par les Nations Unies du droit à la vie privée comme droit fondamental de l’être humain.2

Notes de bas de page:

[1] Rapport sur les événements concernant Maher Arar, 2006.

[2] Résolution adoptée par l’Assemblée générale de l’ONU le 18 décembre 2013. 68/167. Le droit à la vie privée à l’ère du numérique.


Signatures (as of 22/05/2014):

Prof. David Murakami Wood, Dr. Jonathan Obar, Prof. David Lyon, Prof. Ron Deibert, Prof. Micheal Geist, Prof. Andrew Clement, Prof. Leslie Shade, Prof. Benjamin Goold, Dr. Monia Mazigh, Prof. Cindy Blackstock, Dr. Yasmeen Abu-Laban, Prof. David Grondin, Prof. Lisa Austin, Prof. Colin Bennett, Prof. Elena Razlogova, Prof. Christine Bruckert, Prof. Gabriella Coleman, Dr. Andrea Slane, Prof. Teresa Scassa, Prof. David Phillips, Prof. Maritza Felices-Luna, Prof. Martin French, Prof. Ian Goldberg, Prof. Randal Marlin, Prof. Laureen Snider, Prof. Valerie Steeves, Prof. Lori Stinson, Prof. Bryan Sacks, Prof. Dwayne Winseck, Prof. Benjamin Muller, Shawna Finnegan, Nadim Kobeissi, Sharon Polsky, Steve Chapman, Mathieu Gauthier-Pilote, Annette DeFaveri, Philippe Frowd, Dr. Brenda McPhail, Jennifer Barrigar, Ozgun Topak, Dr. Adam Molnar.

OpenMedia.ca, B.C. Civil Liberties Association, National Council of Women of Canada, Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen’s University, Amnesty International Canada, Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, FACIL, International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, Privacy and Access Council of Canada, National Council of Canadian Muslims, Privacy International, North American Association of Independent Journalists, Free Dominion, B.C. Library Association, B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, Pirate Party of Canada, Canadian Civil Liberties Association.


Surveillance as ‘Solution’

In his book, To Save Everything, Click Here, Evgeny Morozov called the predominant contemporary technocentric politics, ‘solutionism’. Surveillance may be one of the best contemporary examples of this trend, at least many surveillance technologies are promoted as a technological solution to some problem whose roots are in way ‘technological’ but social and economic, and therefore whose resolution, equally, must be social and economic.

What got me thinking about this (again) was a little puff-piece in the Ottawa Citizen today, which presented panoramic thermal imaging as the ‘solution’ to the monitoring of the US-Canada border. Now, in recent history the formerly largely unguarded US-Canada has not really presented much of a problem to anyone. However, post-9/11 paranoia has recast the border as a source of threat, not least because of the widely believed myth that some of the hijackers entered the US through Canada. Whether propagated deliberately or through sheer ignorance, this myth has served to harden the US-Canadian border for ordinary people, and especially people of colour, at the same time as the economic liberalization of North America proceeds ‘beyond the border’ (to use the name of the Obama-Harper initiative).

However, the piece in the Citizen isn’t about security as such, but about drugs, and largely marijuana trafficking. This, let us not forget, is at a time when the failures of prohibition are increasingly recognised, when the Organization of American States has published a major report arguing for the decriminalization of the illicit drugs trade in order to better regulate it, and when Canadian police themselves don’t really bother with enforcing existing laws when it comes to marijuana, and Uruguay and several US states have actually voted to legalize it. Surveillance on this context is a ‘solution’ not only to a ‘problem’ that is essentially a legal artifact but one that is a counter-productive and pointless waste of resources which leads to the unnecessary prosecution and demonification of many people.

Where this comes back to 9/11 is that the war on terror has served to ‘securitize’ a lot of these social problems. It does matter that a particular law is ineffective and on the way out, the trade in illegal drugs is bundled together with terrorism and other threats under the rubric of security, and therefore the border is ‘insecure’*. In this context, the manufacturers are able to step forward with technological ‘solutions’ and rather than being laughed out of town, or condemned for overreacting, they are taken seriously by the media and policymakers.

*it should be noted that this process didn’t start with 9/11: ‘narcoterrorism’ was a catchword in US policy in South America for some time before. As Armand Mattelart has argued, in these counter-insurgency operations carried out under the banner of the war on drugs, we see the beginnings of many of the tactics that have become more widespread since 9/11.

Canada and Mali

I’m privileged to be supervising some great students at all levels, but Jeff Monaghan is something else*. Not surprisingly for someone who previously worked with the awesomely prolific and engaged, Kevin Walby (now over in Victoria – who may be the young researcher I most admire in surveillance studies), he mainly uses Access to Information and Privacy requests (ATIPs – under Canada’s freedom of information legislation) as a basic method, and as far as I can see he is constantly firing these things off and sorting through them for revealing nuggets. Right now, Jeff is working in the way in which Canadian development aid, like that of many wealthy nations, is becoming increasingly entwined with a security agenda, what he calls ‘security aid’. Anyway, he’s in the news today because one of his ATIPs has revealed that Canada was engaged in planning for military intervention in Mali, of some sort, over a year ago, belying their apparent public reluctance to get involved right now.


Unlawful Access

The campaign video a lot of us were involved in, to raise awareness of the dangers to Canadian communication rights posed by potential new ‘lawful access’ legislation, is now out. Lawful Access legislation was proposed last year but came up against the time limit of the election. It was then proposed to be included in the new Omnibus Crime Bill, C-51, but was split from this and is now likely either to be introduced separately, or attached stealthily to another bill. It isn’t going to go away…

Watch, learn, act…

Please also sign the petition, and there are also further resources and news here, here and here.