Three Scandals on Mass Surveillance

Three scandals show the danger of mass surveillance in the West.

On Thursday, an even more scathing condemnation of mass surveillance was issued by the Federal Court of Canada. The ruling “faulted Canada’s domestic spy agency for unlawfully retaining data and for not being truthful with judges who authorize its intelligence programs.” Most remarkable was that these domestic, mass surveillance activities were not only illegal, but completely unknown to virtually the entire population in Canadian democracy, even though their scope has indescribable implications for core liberties

The third scandal also comes from Canada — a critical1 partner in the Five Eyes spying alliance along with the U.S. and U.K. — where law enforcement officials in Montreal are now defending “a highly controversial decision to spy on a La Presse columnist [Patrick Lagacé] by tracking his cellphone calls and texts and monitoring his whereabouts as part of a necessary internal police investigation.” The targeted journalist, Lagacé, had enraged police officials by investigating their abusive conduct, and they then used surveillance technology to track his calls and movements to unearth the identity of his sources. Just as that scandal was exploding, it went, in the words of the Montreal Gazette, “from bad to worse” as the ensuing scrutiny revealed that police had actually “tracked the calls and movements of six journalists that year after news reports based on leaks revealed Michel Arsenault, then president of Quebec’s largest labour federation, had his phone tapped.”

Speaking this week at Montreal’s McGill University, Snowden called for the resignation of Montreal’s police chief and denounced the spying as a “radical attack on the operations of the free press.”

So just this month alone, two key members of the Five Eyes alliance have been found by courts and formal investigations to be engaged in mass surveillance that was both illegal and pervasive, as well as, in the case of Canada, abusing surveillance powers to track journalists to uncover their sources. When Snowden first spoke publicly, these were exactly the abuses and crimes he insisted were being committed by the mass surveillance regime these nations had secretly erected and installed, claims which were vehemently denied by the officials in charge of those systems.

Yet with each new investigation and judicial inquiry, and as more evidence is unearthed, Snowden’s core claims are increasingly vindicated. Western officials are indeed addicted to unaccountable, secretive, abusive systems of mass surveillance used against their own citizens and foreigners alike, and the more those systems take root, the more core liberties are eroded.