ESSAY: How Information Technologies are Degrading Liberty

cartoon computer and keyboard floating on a blue background with apps circling the computer
Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are now ubiquitous with Western businesses, governments, and consumers

In the last two decades, Canada has undergone a rapid economic transformation embracing technological innovation. Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are now ubiquitous with Western businesses, governments, and consumers. This embrace of technology has enabled opportunities for improved efficiency, personalization, and communication in the economy; yet, simultaneously, it has facilitated the growth of new threats. Global unrest has encouraged a shift in the social attitudes of Canadians towards favouring security over privacy policy. Canadian governments have reflected this change through the implementation of authoritarian style surveillance policy utilizing the mass adoption of ICTs. In this paper, I will corroborate Lessig’s claim that the Internet and ICTs are becoming tools of control by analyzing how Canada’s government could use surveillance to restrict civil liberties and regulate disseminated information.

Canada is revered around the globe for its social fabric, as Canadian culture places an extremely high importance on civil liberties. As a result, Canada is consistently a shining beacon of democracy. Any Canadian citizen can run for election, and transfers of power have continuously occurred without violence, uprising, or social upheaval. Unfortunately, “fast developing technologies combined with new governmental and commercial strategies have led to the proliferation of new modes of surveillance,” which has begun to erode many of the freedoms most Canadians take for granted (Lyon, 2010). Even the knowledge that government surveillance is taking place has an adverse impact on social behavior, with “civil libertarians warn[ing] about the chilling effect such monitoring could have on forms of expression” (McDonald, 1986). Government monitoring of ICTs and the subsequent mass collection of data puts free speech, association, and political dissent at risk. Bill C-51, commonly known as the “Anti-Terrorism Act,” was introduced under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. This bill enabled preventative detention of individuals, which is “detention on the suspicion that someone may or will commit a crime at some point in the future” (Ruby, Hasan, 2015). This flips the judicial precedent that individuals must be presumed innocent until proven guilty. This policy erodes civil liberties and undermines the Canadian legal system, which is fundamental to the organization and maintenance of Canadian society. To make matters worse, Bill C-51 creates new offenses for activities which “undermine the security of Canada, including interfering with the economic or financial stability of Canada (Theodorakidis, 2015). This broad definition alienates political advocacy groups (or individuals) opposed to current government projects. Stephen Harper’s former government had close ties to Canada’s fossil fuel industry. Bill C-51 enabled his government to target environmental groups for surveillance purposes, claiming they were in opposition to the “financial interests” of Canada, and therefore undermined national security. The right to speak freely about the government, as well as to politically organize, is essential to maintaining Canada’s democracy. Should surveillance technology continue to be implemented at the current rate, Canada risks losing many of its fundamental freedoms, in lieu of a surveillance state in which citizens self monitor themselves. In this sense, there is a risk of Canadian society mirroring Michel Foucault’s panopticon metaphor, in which individuals act as their own social control mechanism (“Internalized Authority and the Prison of the Mind,” n.d). The overarching issue is that government surveillance has a remarkable lack of transparency, yet forces total transparency onto Canadian citizens. A poll conducted in 2015 by the privacy commissioner’s office indicated that an overwhelming majority, or “nine in 10 Canadians have “some level of concern” about privacy, and it is easy to understand why (“More Canadians concerned about ‘losing control,” 2015). These policies show that the government expects the full trust of its citizens, while entirely failing to reciprocate any.

The enormous mass of data currently being collected by the Canadian government directly threatens the privacy interests of Canadians. Harper’s Bill C-51 enabled government agencies to share data between themselves (Bronskill, 2016). This is problematic since the likelihood of breaches rises as more people gain access to information. In 2018, Ottawa’s privacy watchdog disclosed that many government privacy breaches go unreported altogether (Boutilier, 2018). National security agencies like the Canadian Security Establishment (CSE) or the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) having access to endless amounts of data is troubling enough. Once information begins to be shared internally to additional agencies, risks are elevated substantially. Canada is also apart of the Anglophone intelligence group named “Five Eyes,” consisting of Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. Essentially, Five Eyes acts as a conglomerate of a surveillance organization. There is a provision in the Five Eyes security agreement stating that member countries cannot spy on the citizens of other member countries; however, this provision does not stop Canada (or any other member country) from offering up information about their own citizens. Much is unknown about the extent to which information is shared between the Five Eyes member countries, as the operation is purposefully and understandably covert. However, in 2013, leaked documents showed that Five Eyes has extensive joint surveillance measures used to collect data abroad (Freeze, 2018). There is the potential that crucial Canadian privacy information is being shared with other countries. Regardless that the Five Eyes are seen as some of Canada’s most significant ally nations, private data provides the means to enact social control, which is why as few individuals should have access to it as possible. Canadians must know the extent to which personal information is being shared with allies. 5Otherwise, Canadian citizens could be easily manipulated by both domestic and foreign governments.

Government monitoring of the Internet and communication channels also allows the government to regulate the information being disseminated. Just recently, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signed onto the Christchurch call, which pledges its signatories to “ensure effective enforcement of applicable laws that prohibit the production or dissemination of terrorist and violent extremist content” (“Online hate is a real threat,” 2019). This agreement was developed following two Mosque shootings in New Zealand. As a part of this agreement, Trudeau pledged to crack down on hate speech as well as misinformation through regulating the Internet, stressing that the lack of regulation of the digital sphere has created an Internet “wild west” (“Online hate is a real threat,” 2019). While the intentions behind this policy appear benign, the actual consequences are very complicated. The notion that the government can crackdown on “misinformation” in particular could be a precursor to state censorship. In a worst-case scenario, this could enable the government to remove any online criticism of its mandate. For example, if the Liberals decided that much of the criticism surrounding their carbon tax constituted “misinformation,” they could remove it. This has significant implications for fundamental freedoms, as the government could take a more direct approach to participating in social control. Another challenge is that individuals would be unknowing of the content removed, which makes holding the government accountable significantly more challenging. Once again, the issue comes back to transparency and accountability. Online censorship is often used in tandem with active manipulation of online channels through the use of pro-government influencers or bots. Russia demonstrated throughout the American Presidential election in 2016 that online government influencers and bots could be enormously effective at swaying public discourse. These bots “are programmed to actively and automatically flood news streams with spam during political crises, elections, and conflicts in order to interrupt the efforts of activists and political dissidents who publicize and organize online” (Woolley, 2016). Through surveillance, governments can tactically deploy bots and influencers to crucial communication channels, having a dramatic impact on social discourse. While the likelihood of the Canadian government doing so is relatively low, this demonstrates how ICTs are giving the Canadian government all of the tools necessary to force rigid social control upon unsuspecting Canadians.

The increase in authoritarian style government surveillance policy has coincided with the liberalization of Canada’s economy, which is an acute irony. The very freedoms championed by the liberal movement are now under threat. The Internet and ICTs are quickly becoming the perfect tools of control for governments, as they provide the means to ward off or deflect threats that democracy could impose on their mandate. If the scope of state surveillance in Canada continues to expand, the Canadian judicial branch will be at risk. Social norms will change to reflect a “guilty until proven innocent” mentality, which promotes governmentality, or the act of self-regulation. Canada is currently on a dangerous trajectory, which is why moving forward, government surveillance policy must be heavily restricted and significantly more transparent to the Canadian public.

References

Bending the Internet: How Governments Control the Flow of Information Online. (2018, June 18). Retrieved from https://worldview.stratfor.com/article/bending-internet-how-governments-control-flow-information-online.

Boutilier, A. (2018, December 23). Federal departments and agencies reported 200 serious privacy breaches in 2017. Retrieved from https://www.thestar.com/politics/federal/2018/12/23/federal-departments-and-agencies-reported-200-serious-privacy-breaches-in-2017.html.

Bronskill, J. (2016, March 25). Federal agencies sharing information under Bill C-51 provisions. Retrieved from https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2016/03/24/federal-agencies-sharing-information-under-bill-c-51-provisions.html.

Freeze, C. (2018, May 11). ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence-sharing program threatens Canadians abroad, watchdog warns. Retrieved from https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/five-eyes-intelligence-sharing-program-threatens-canadians-abroad-watchdog-warns/article15199925/.

Globe editorial: Online hate is a real threat. But so is government censorship. (2019, May 23). Retrieved from https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/editorials/article-online-hate-is-a-real-threat-but-so-is-government-censorship/

Internalized Authority and the Prison of the Mind: Bentham and Foucault’s Panopticon. (n.d). Retrieved from https://www.brown.edu/Departments/Joukowsky_Institute/courses/13things/7121.html

Lyon D. (2010) Surveillance, Power and Everyday Life. In: Kalantzis-Cope P., Gherab-Martín K. (eds) Emerging Digital Spaces in Contemporary Society. Palgrave Macmillan, London

McDonald, F. M. (1986). Technology, privacy, and electronic freedom of speech.

More Canadians concerned about ‘losing control’ over personal info | CBC News. (2015, January 29). Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/cyber-surveillance-worries-most-canadians-privacy-czar-s-poll-1.2934916.

Ruby, C., & Hasan, N. R. (2015). Overly broad and unnecessary anti-terrorism reforms could criminalize free speech. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Theodorakidis, A. (2015, June 27). Bill C-51, Freedom of Assembly and Canadians’ Ability to Protest. Retrieved from https://www.cjfe.org/bill_c_51_freedom_of_assembly_and_canadians_ability_to_protest.

Woolley, S. (2016). Automating power: Social bot interference in global politics. First Monday, 21(4). doi:https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v21i4.6161

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