Photo via Facebook.
Like those underemployed twenty-somethings the internet loves to ridicule, former cabinet minister Chuck Strahl has to hustle a few side jobs to get the bills paid. “I’m not independently wealthy,” he told the National Post earlier this month, when questioned about his work as both an energy lobbyist and a government spy watchdog.
Until Friday, Chuck’s main gig was chairing the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC)—a part-time job that allowed him access to vast piles of intel collected by CSIS. Chuck’s mandate was to ensure spies followed the rule of law and that Canadians’ rights and privacy were upheld. PM Stephen Harper appointed him to the position in 2012, after serving as a Conservative MP in Chilliwack from 1993 to 2011.
Since Chuck isn’t a trustafarian or anything, he also registered with the BC government as a lobbyist for the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline on December 6, 2013. Elected officials usually have to wait five years to do that kind of work federally, but British Columbia’s government has no rules against it. He’d already worked as a “consultant” for Enbridge since 2011, which the federal ethics commissioner had given a green light.
The huge conflict of interest here should be pretty obvious: Chuck was privy to intelligence programs that, for example, monitored people and organizations who publicly oppose the Northern Gateway pipeline—particularly leading up to the controversial project’s environment and safety review hearings. While there’s no evidence that he shared secrets with Enbridge, or that his lobbying intentions somehow influenced SIRC’s oversight, Chuck gave in to the media uproar and called it quits late last week.
“I retired from politics three years ago and do not wish to be in the centre of the political fray,” reads Strahl’s letter of resignation. “Nor do I want to be a distraction from the important work SIRC does everyday in ensuring the security of Canadians. It is therefore with regret that I have concluded it is best for all concerned that I step down as Chair of SIRC.”
As it turns out, half the colleagues Chuck left behind at SIRC also have ties to energy companies: Denis Losier works for Enbridge and Yves Fortier was on the board of TransCanada. (“Independent” appears to be a loosely-interpreted term at SIRC.) The ministry of public safety used to have its own inspector general watching the watchers, but that office of investigators was eliminated to save money in 2012.
According to Canadian cybersurveillance expert Ron Deibert, the last thing we should be doing in this metadata-soaked era is eliminating spying oversight mechanisms. During a lecture at the University of British Columbia last week, Deibert explained how the historically recent emergence of social media, cloud computing and mobile web surfing have taken countless scraps of information out of our brains and put them into the hands of unaccountable third parties. As a global society, we’re still figuring out the ethics, limits and “digital hygiene” practices that best serve this new reality.
Deibert readily acknowledges the legitimate security challenges governments face in this globalized, over-digitized environment. In his view, it’s not surprising or unsettling that Canadian and American spy agencies work together during international conferences like the G20. However, the author of Black Code: Surveillance, Privacy and the Dark Side of the Internet thinks the spy industry has suffered a disturbing “inertia” over the past decade—sucking up hundreds of millions of records on law-abiding citizens along the way.
Spy agencies—and particularly “signals intelligence agencies” like the NSA or Canada’s own CSEC, of which little is known—have taken a cavalier attitude toward the privacy laws that protect law-abiding citizens. They’re mining third-party servers, routers and apps for data before accountability mechanisms have a chance to catch up. Last week a US oversight panel made a big leap by ruling the NSA’s sweeping metadata collection program is unlawful, and also not that helpful.
Deibert says Canada has some strong laws around privacy, but that CSEC is not accountable to those laws. “The area we’re talking about, signals intelligence, has very little oversight, and doesn’t fall under federal or provincial privacy commissioners’ jurisdiction,” he says.
CSEC has a different oversight body from SIRC, which reports to the ministry of national defence. At the very least CSEC commissioner Jean-Pierre Plouffe is a retired federal judge—not ruling party faithful like Chuck. (Strahl and Plouffe are “apples and oranges” according to Deibert). Still, oversight for Canada’s most secretive spy agency suffers “architectural” inadequacies.
Plouffe and a staff of 11 investigators oversee 2,100 CSEC employees. “They have pretty full range to go in and ask questions, review files, and interview members,” Deibert explains. However, “accountability is within the tent; CSEC is not answerable to parliament or an outside agency.” In other words, it’s not independently reviewed, which may explain why so little is known about the scope of CSEC activities.
This is something Deibert wishes Canadians were angrier about. While neighbours to the south are making noise and getting response, Canada’s conversation has barely started. “People are hopefully waking up to that,” he says, “right now it’s a real gap.”