Eye-opening book examines the tug-of-war between civil liberties and national security

In addition to discussing COVID-19, climate change, and “building back better,” Justin Trudeau and Joe Biden also talked about security during their meeting in Washington, D.C. last week.

“The Prime Minister and the President discussed their extensive cooperation in security matters, and agreed to find opportunities to further strengthen and expand cooperation between the Five Eyes countries,” the official readout from the Canadian government said.

The Five Eyes intelligence compact — comprised of Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand — figures prominently in Big Data Surveillance and Security Intelligence: The Canadian Case, an important and eye-opening new book published by UBC Press.

“As shown by a recent Federal Appeal Court case (X(Re), 2013 FC 1275), Canadian intelligence agencies have subcontracted the surveillance of Canadians to foreign Five Eyes partners, this without informing the court when obtaining the original interception warrants,” criminologist Stéphane Leman-Langlois writes in his chapter on big data collection and analytics. “The law has since been amended to allow the practice, which should make watching suspects around the globe much easier.”

And what has this shadowy process, along with our intelligence operatives’ seemingly indiscriminate data-gathering practices, produced? In a number of cases, it’s resulted in the pursuit and persecution of innocent people who had no idea they’d become targets of state surveillance.

As Leman-Langlois observes: “Hundreds of Canadians will be travelling with secret ‘terrorism’ labels affixed to their passports, the consequences of which are well illustrated by the cases of Canadians Maher Arar, Abdullah Almalki, Muayyed Nureddin, and Ahmed Abou-Elmaati. Each was the victim of torture abroad due to misidentification by Canadian police as a terror suspect.”

Edited by David Lyon and David Murakami Wood, Big Data Surveillance and Security Intelligence tackles some of the most pressing issues of our time — issues that can only be expected to grow in size and complexity.

Grave threats to privacy have been revealed by a number of whistleblowers, most notably Edward Snowden, an American whose leaks helped shed some light on the rather opaque situation in Canada.

“While the Snowden documents offer significant public insight into the domestic mass surveillance operations of the NSA and of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in the United Kingdom, comparatively little is known about similar activities of (the Communications Security Establishment),” writes Andrew Clement, co-founder of the Identity Privacy and Security Institute, in his chapter on the capabilities of Canada’s signals intelligence agency. “Fewer than forty of the hundreds of Snowden documents published to date relate directly to CSE.”

“However,” Clement notes, “a careful reading of these documents, in combination with the more abundant materials about its Five Eyes partners and a basic understanding of Internet routing technique, offers sufficient basis for the reasonable suspicion that CSE is routinely intercepting Canadians’ domestic Internet communications in bulk.”

With Facebook’s re-branding as Meta, and its eager embrace of virtual reality, data collection and surveillance could widen in scope and become even more invasive in the not-too-distant future.

Recently made available in paperback, Big Data Surveillance and Security Intelligence is an essential and revealing examination of the tug-of-war between civil liberties and national security in our fast-moving digital age.