1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Beefing up surveillance

Kait BolongaroJune 9, 2015

Prompted by terrorist attacks Canada's Conservative government is pushing to expanding the intelligence agencies' powers. Critics say the new legislation will threaten free speech and the work of journalists.

A Royal Canadian Mounted Police intervention team
Image: picture-alliance/AP/ Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld

Canada's intelligence establishment is turning over a new leaf in national security. The Anti-Terrorism Act, also known as Bill C-51, would strengthen the mandate of the Canadian Service Intelligence Services (CSIS) and Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), the Canadian equivalent of the US National Security Agency. The Senate is expected to pass the controversial legislation on Tuesday, the final step before it becomes law.

Bill C-51 will allow CSIS to seek judicial permission to bypass rights protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to disrupt threats to national security. Another provision will authorize government departments to share personal information about Canadians. It also endows CSIS, which currently operates solely as an intelligence gathering agency, with certain policing powers currently held by the police.

Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper introduced the legislation after two terrorist attacks in Ottawa and Quebec. Critics of the bill are disturbed by the expanded powers it would give to intelligence agencies, without added oversight.

"There is a great deal of concern about the implications of this bill for the fabric of our democracy," said David Christopher, communications manager for Open Media, a non-profit group coordinating the #StopC51 campaign.

'Chilling free speech'

Journalists especially are worried about provisions that criminalize the "glorification" of terrorism. They argue that the legislation's vague language could leave those who share extremist material vulnerable to prosecution, even if they were acting in the public interest. For example, if a journalist republishes an "Islamic State" video to show how the group's propaganda machine operates, she could be held criminally responsible.

"We are concerned about the notion that any innocent speech would be prosecuted," said Nick Taylor-Vaisey, vice president of the Canadian Association of Journalists.

Canada's parliament in Ottawa
Harper got backing for the bill from the House of Commons on SundayImage: dpa

Veterans of CSIS reject claims that the legislation would target protestors and journalists.

"The CSIS Act has been unequivocal since its inception in 1984, and Bill C-51 does not change that - it clearly protects 'lawful advocacy, protest and dissent' - and has been applied meticulously during the almost three decades that I worked in national security," said Ray Boisvert, the former assistant director of CSIS in an e-mail to DW.

Data collection concerns

Privacy advocates have expressed concern that the law will allow intelligence services to collect bulk personal data, which previously could only be gathered regarding individuals suspected of posing a threat to national security. Boisvert says there is a clear distinction between bulk data collection and surveillance.

"I do not equate bulk collection with spying. Bulk collection is about 'parking data' so that you can later check a reference or threat-related lead," he said. "If agencies cannot collect this data then they are out of business in the 21st century and all advantages move to the 'attacker.'"

Media organizations argue that bulk digital surveillance can undermine a journalist's ability to protect his or her sources.

"Journalists are moving towards encrypting e-mails and communication with their sources," said Tom Henheffer, executive director of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, a non-profit promoting freedom of expression. "You are no longer safe as a journalist communicating with a source. This is a huge blow to investigative journalism in Canada."

The rise of self-censorship?

Others, such as Darren Fleet, senior editor at Adbusters, believe Bill C-51 could change the way journalists approach news in Canada, making them more inclined to self-censorship.

"[Bill C-51] creates a real chill because of how it describes what the parameters are of encouraging anti-state activity," Fleet, who attracted attention with a widely read opinion piece in the "National Observer" about his discovery that he was under CSIS surveillance, told DW.

"For those kind of journalists who dig into the more editorializing aspects of journalism, the fear of self-censorship is very real because they don't want to be the targets of this bill."

Tom Henheffer believes self-censorship is already prevalent and likely to spread under Bill C-51.

"When it comes down to being under surveillance, that is a huge chill [for journalists]," he said. "Canadian journalists already censor themselves far too often. It's an open secret that mining companies based [in Canada] commit terrible human rights abuses in other countries, but no one write about that because they are very litigious and have extremely deep pockets."

Stephen Harper
Many journalists see Harper as hindering them in doing their jobsImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo

Without new provisions for government oversight, it would be difficult for journalists to have access to high-ranking security officials, perhaps worsening an already tumultuous relationship between the Conservatives and media. Since taking office in 2006, Stephen Harper has been criticized for limiting media access to official events, instating a five-question limit in the press gallery during elections, stifling access to information requests and forbidding government scientists to speak to media.

For Fleet, these hurdles are part of a government strategy to undermine journalists who challenge their policies.

"This government has a very strong history of wanting to control its message and wanting to have every tool available to them in the toolbox."