Privacy watchdog coalition slams surveillance

Cover story published in 24 Hours Vancouver | October 10, 2013 | Circulation: 280,000+ 

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The “largest-ever pro-privacy coalition in Canadian history” launched in B.C. Thursday, amidst revelations the country’s electronic spy agency hacked into Brazil’s federal mining department and shared the intelligence with national energy interests.

The Protect Our Privacy Coalition, encompassing 30 groups which span the political spectrum from right to left, believes federal Justice Minister Peter McKay will try to re-introduce aspects of controversial snooping legislation when Parliament resumes this month.

Bill C-30, the Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act, was quashed in February amidst widespread opposition, including from backbench Conservative MPs.

However, McKay “refusing to rule out” a C-30 redux and recent spying revelations have coalition members “watching very closely,” said David Christopher, a spokesman for which initiated the new coalition. “It would have involved police gaining warrantless access, without oversight, into the private lives of Canadians,” he said. “Canadians spoke out in one voice: ‘No, this is going way too far in trampling on privacy rights.’”

The B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association told 24 hours the Communications Security Establishment Canada – currently under scrutiny for its new $4 billion Ottawa headquarters and spying allegations in Brazil – is “out of control.” The agency said the building was needed to house its 2,000 employees and insisted it doesn’t spy on Canadians.

“Not only are the communications security agencies pushing their mandate,” said Vince Gogolek, the agency’s executive director. “They’re going well beyond it: … increasing surveillance, increasing monitoring of citizens who really should not be being noticed by the state, people going about their daily business, just having regular interactions with the government, or even just being on the Internet.”

The coalition draws together a disparate alliance of privacy and civil liberty advocates from far-left to far-right of the spectrum.

“It’s not an issue of partisanship,” said Chris Schafer, Canadian Constitution Foundation executive director. “Privacy is fundamental.

“I’m not against government … If the government can make the case for the privacy of certain information, then make the case in a public forum, in the House of Commons. We elect members to debate these issues. You can’t have that debate if these things are done in secret.”

The same day the coalition launched, the provincial government welcomed delegates to the Privacy and Access 20/20 Conference hosted this week in Vancouver by the province’s information and privacy commissioner.

“Technology — in particular the Internet — has brought a shift in how citizens, governments and businesses think about information rights,” said Minister of Technology, Innovation and Citizens’ Services Andrew Wilkinson in a statement.

“As a government we are committed to ensuring that the privacy of individual citizens is protected by legislation that is among the strongest of its kind in Canada.”

Schafer added, “far too often, government is seen as our master, rather than our servant,” but that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”

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