Bill C-51 has been full of mysteries from the beginning.
The controversial anti-terrorism law, passed by the previous Conservative government in 2015, came at a time when fear of terrorist attacks was high following the Parliament Hill shooting the year before. It gave police the power to preventatively detain terror suspects, banned the “promotion of terrorism” and expanded the powers of Canada’s intelligence agency, CSIS (The Canadian Security Intelligence Service), among other things.
But the language used in the bill leaves many ambiguities, which privacy advocates say threaten our freedom. In particular, they point to the fact that it gives law enforcement enhanced surveillance and “disruption” powers, although we don’t know exactly what that means.
Repealing some of the bill’s most “problematic elements” was one of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s campaign promises, though what exactly those elements are is also unclear. The federal government is holding public consultations on that subject this month.
We don’t know much else.
However, a lot of what we do know about Canadian surveillance technology is thanks to the work of Matt Braga. He’s a freelance journalist, a professor at the Ryerson School of Journalism and the former Canadian editor of Motherboard, VICE Media’s science and technology channel. He reported on the government’s new surveillance techniques last spring with Colin Freeze at The Globe and Mail.
We sat down with him to find out what we know about C-51, what the government knows about us and what mysteries are still remaining.
Let’s dive right into this. What does “disruption powers” mean, and what does C-51 actually allow?
To this day, there’s a lot of misunderstanding or misinformation about what they can actually do. Does that mean you could prevent text messages from being sent by having an intercept point set up? Does that mean you’re going to be monitoring email addresses or messages? Did it mean that if you were running a website that was posting propaganda, that CSIS could just take down the website?
Tons of us have put in information requests asking whether this means that they’re using malware, or ‘intrusion techniques.’ It’s tough because we’ve asked and they won’t tell us.
More recently when we’ve asked – and I should be clear that it’s more other journalists that have been doing the C-51 asking as of late – the line is, ‘This is why we’ve having this consultation, so that Canadians can talk about what concerns they have about C-51 and the questions they have.’
That seems to be another way to sidestep the answer. The sense I’ve gotten is that the consultation has been met with some skepticism.
Let’s talk about devices that intercept cell phone data, which you reported on last spring for The Globe. How do we know if and when the Canadian government is using them?
Historically, when we’ve tried to figure out whether or not police are using these devices, we’ve been looking for something that’s almost too explicit. Like, we’ve been looking for something where the judge basically says, ‘Yes, we’ve given you authorization to use these devices.’
The authorizations we’ve seen have been more like, ‘We authorize you to use a device that will allow you to identify suspects.’ The authorizations, I think, exist. It’s just that I don’t think they’re worded or designed in a way that satisfies what I think we’d expect an authorization to be.
So it’s not like they’re saying outright, ‘Oh you can use a Stingray (a brand name cell phone surveillance device), that’s totally cool.’
Exactly. And the way the police have argued this in court so far has been, ‘Well, you know, the devices we have and the way we use them can intercept communications, we just use them to identify and locate suspects.’
Actually, even that I should walk back. They’re very careful about the distinction they make between using it to identify suspects and like, link suspects and phones together. And locations, because the location aspect of it is a different function of the device. It gets very, very confusing because there are all these different distinctions.
It seems like it’s difficult to get official information because the government is so tight-lipped about intelligence techniques. How do you get around that?
It’s been really, really difficult. Up until recently, none of our access to information requests has really yielded anything. You send in media requests and oftentimes the responses will range from ‘we don’t know what you’re talking about’ to ‘no comment.’
Now, we’re starting to see court cases emerge, probably because these court cases have been so publicized in the U.S. that now lawyers are looking back at some of the techniques used on their clients and thinking, ‘Oh, these devices might actually have been used here.’
The RCMP has admitted for the first time that they’re using these devices, but that’s sort of the extent of it. They’ll admit that they’re using them but they won’t really talk about how they’re using them. Well, I mean, they’ve shed more light on how they’re using them to a degree, but they won’t really talk about how they’re using them more recently.
We also don’t know how they’re filtering that data, right? They could stick one here in the middle of campus and it would pick up everything from everyone’s phones.
That’s the thing. That’s an open question right now, about what happens with that data. In court, they haven’t actually admitted to there being a retention period.
The indications we’ve got are they just put it away in a database and they can then consult later on. That’s kind of worrying as well, because if they’re using these devices who knows how many times, sucking up tons and tons of phone numbers, and then able to go back to that later on for different investigations and try to correlate information previously collected, then there’s a privacy concern there.
Does thinking about this kind of thing ever make you paranoid?
Not super paranoid. But I mean, it’s sort of funny. When your cell phone suddenly loses all its bars or you’re having a problem getting a signal, I think it’s really easy to joke, especially if I’m in the company of other journalists that cover this sort of stuff.
When I started interviewing people that had first-hand possession of Snowden documents, going across the border always made me go, ‘Oh, I wonder what’s going to happen.’ It was always fine.
I think if anything, it’s made me more aware of what I keep on my devices and the state that I leave my devices in.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.