Canadian Internet Snooping Law

I’ve noted before that there seems to be a concerted push around the world by governments to introduce comprehensive new telecoms surveillance laws that force telecommunications and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to record, store, and provide access to and/or share with state intelligence agencies, the traffic and/or communications data of their customers (in other words, users like us). What is noticeably here is that there is a particular logic that appears in the arguments of governments who are attempting to persuade their parliaments or people of the need for such laws. This logic that is firstly, circular and self-referential, in that it makes reference to the fact that other governments have passed such laws as if this in itself provides some compelling reason for the law to be passed in their own country. The second part of this is a king of competitive disadvantage arguments that flows from the first argument: if ‘we’ don’t have this law, then somehow we are falling behind in a never openly discussed intelligence-capability race that will hit national technological innovation too.

The media often seem oblivious to what seems obvious, and hence the story on the CTV news site today with reference to Canada’s currently proposed communications law that would allow the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) warrantless access to such the data from Internet and telecoms providers. They consider it to be ‘unexpected’ that the parliamentary Security Intelligence Review Committee has come out in support of the bill. Looking at the reasons why though, they are exactly what one would expect if one has been following the debates around the world and contain exactly the logics I have outlined. The story notes that the committee “points out that governments in the United States and Europe have already passed laws requiring co-operation between security agencies and online service providers” (without, incidentally, pointing out that these remain enormously controversial, or that other governments have abandoned some of their attempts) and later that “intelligence technology… requires continued access to new talent and innovative research.” However they won’t go into details as it is a “very sensitive matter.”

And absent from this debate as usual is the fact that this is not just a question of ‘national security’ if you set up these systems, you feed the US National Security Agency too. Canadian intelligence is still bound by agreements made after WW2, particularly the CANUSA agreement on Signals Intelligence (SIGINT), later incorporated into the UKUSA structure. And as we all know, right now, the USA does not always have the same strategic interests as Canada (the issue of arctic sovereignty is just one example). If this bill is passed, it’s a license for US spies, not just Canadian ones.

UN 1267 and kafkaesque justice

I have just come back from a talk by Abousfian Abdelrazik, a Canadian citizen of Sudanese origin who has just in June returned to Canada after six years in Sudan. He wasn’t there by choice but because he was arrested by the Sudanese intelligence services (NISS) – who have been frequently condemned by Amnesty International and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights – imprisoned and tortured and then prevented from returning by the Canadian government, until a Federal Court Judge, Russel Zinn, ruled in his favour.  He has never been charged with any offence let alone convicted, and it has been made clear on a number of occasions that there is no evidence against him. Furthermore he alleges (and Judge Zinn agreed) that the Canadian Secret Intelligence Service (CSIS) was involved almost every step of the way, including harassing him and his family, and participating in his interrogation in the Sudan – CSIS is, of course, as unacountable as most of the intelligence agencies of supposedly democratic western states.  You can read more about the case here.

Now he’s back, but he is effectively a persona non grata, as since 2006, at the request of the US government, he has been on The Consolidated List established and maintained by the 1267 Committee with respect to Al-Qaida, Usama bin Laden, and the Taliban and other individuals, groups, undertakings and entities associated with them (the ‘UN 1267 List’). This list, established by UN Resolution 1267, and administered by the permanent members of the Security Council (not the General Assembly or other more accountable UN organisations), goes much further than the US ‘No-Fly List’. It is supposedly a list of the most dangerous Al-Qaeda and Taliban members and affiliates and no signatory state is allowed to provide those listed with any financial or material assistance, including services, employment, healthcare and so on. You would think that this extraordinary (and so far as we know, indefinite) punishment would require equally extraordinary proof, but the situation is the opposite: there is no public evidence or accountability offered. It is theoretically possible to get off the list, but appeal is only to the UN 1267 List committee itself, seems to work on the principle of ‘prove that you are not a terrorist’ – an all but impossible task for anyone – and no reason for refusal is published or given to the appellant.

But the list itself is entirely public. On the website, you can find Abdelrazik, listed under ‘Individuals associated with Al-Qaeda’ – and let’s make it clear, no evidence has been offered to suggest that he is in any way associated with that terrorist organisation or its affiliates. The entries are telling in that they are basically a series of ‘known aliases’ of various degrees of apparent strength of evidence (which of course is not provided). Each group of aliases could really be anyone or any number of people for two main reasons. Firstly, there is the acknowledged lack of expertise of western intelligence agencies in Arabic and Muslim countries – just as a random example, see this article from earlier this year which makes clear that the CIA is still massively deficient in all foreign language skills. The second is the fact that any information they do have was in many cases either paid for or obtained by forced confessions through intimidation and torture, which as everyone knows, provides nothing of value and is counterproductive in a wider political sense (in addition to being wrong, of course). And to add another layer of bleak irony, some of this unreliable information is obtained from the very organisations (like NISS) condemned by the UN for their appalling human rights records! Yet a web of certainty and indefinite punitive restriction is being spun around these dubious data.

Judge Zinn in his judgement, compared the situation to that of The Trial by Franz Kafka, and it’s hard to imagine a more apt word for it than kafkaesque. He not only decried the Canadian government’s attitude to this individual case as flawed (as have been the actions of almost all the major western nations in this area), but he argued that the UN 1267 list as a whole was  “a denial of basic legal remedies and untenable under the principles of international human rights” and – I would add – morally indefensible.