In a speech to 600 people at McGill University in Montreal on Wednesday night, Edward Snowden described police spying on Quebec journalists a "threat to the traditional model of our democracy."
Though it had been announced months ago, the timing of Snowden's conference was strangely appropriate. The event took place just hours after La Presse revealed the Sûreté du Québec (SQ), which is the provincial police force, had put at least six prominent journalists under surveillance. Two days earlier, the same Montreal daily had broken the story that its own star columnist, Patrick Lagacé, had been spied on by the Montreal police force (SPVM).
Appearing live from Russia, where he's been living in exile since exposing top secret information about US intelligence and surveillance programs, Snowden did not mince words when discussing the behaviour of Quebec police.
"You can find out anyone he met with, who did he call, how long he was on the phone"
"From now on, local police can decide they don't like what a journalist has been reporting and go to a justice of the peace, who'll say, 'Sounds great. Look at the GPS on his phone, figure out everywhere he's been traveling, figure out anyone he's communicated with. No, you can't actually read his emails, you can't actually listen to his calls, but you can find out anyone he met with, who did he call, how long he was on the phone with them'," the former CIA agent and NSA employee said. "With this, you can gain an extraordinary understanding of how this individual works."
The world's most famous whistleblower suggested SPVM chief Philippe Pichet should resign immediately, describing the surveillance of Lagacé and other journalists as a "radical attack on the operations of the free press." Snowden also took shots at Montreal mayor Denis Coderre and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard for not firing Pichet.
The Canadian legal system could be to blame, Snowden suggested, since whatever protections once existed to ensure individual freedoms have been undermined by authorities. "Government has built mechanisms to get around these things, these restrictions," he said. "Can we recognize—or at least debate in a reasonable way—a new idea that is so radical, which is that the law is beginning to fail as a guarantor of our rights?"
Snowden reiterated that citizens should be leery of authoritarian measures defended by governments that argue their very survival is under threat from terrorists. "There's no real evidence this is actually the case, but the politics of this fear have reshaped the way our laws are getting passed."
Canada's Bill C-51, whose adoption in 2015 generated reams of criticism from legal experts and ordinary citizens worried about how it would erode Canadians' privacy and individual rights, was one such example, he said. During the election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to amend the law, most notably by scrapping some "problematic elements" like the overly vague proscription against terrorist propaganda and by "guaranteeing that all actions undertaken by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service are consistent with Canada's Charter of rights and freedoms."
More than a year later, none of those reforms have come to pass.
"How do we protect the fact that the communication occurred at all?"
The only change to Canada's anti-terror law has come in the form of Bill C-22, which would have a parliamentary committee oversee Canada's intelligence agencies. Otherwise, the federal government has only committed to holding a series of public hearings around the country, which began last September 8. Given that the hearings are expected to last through December, it's unlikely any reforms will be announced before the end of the year.
During a video-conference broadcast in Toronto in October, Snowden suggested Trudeau has been holding back on implementing any changes for political reasons. The PM, he said, is "afraid of being politically attacked on the basis of being soft on terrorism, regardless of whether or not this law actually helps prevent any terrorist attacks."
Snowden reinforced that skeptical message on Wednesday. To students who asked how they can avoid falling under the watchful eye of government agencies, Snowden offered little in the way of advice. He suggested they encrypt their communications to prevent authorities from listening on phone calls or reading their text messages and emails, but mused philosophically about the impossible challenge of keeping their mere existence private: "How do we protect the fact that the communication occurred at all?"
There's a long way to go before citizens are protected against intrusions—lawful and otherwise—into their private lives, Snowden said, imploring the audience to be vigilant against attempts to undermine human rights. "We can have a very dark future, or very bright future. But the ultimate decision of which fork in the road we take won't be my decision. It won't be the government's decision. It will be your generation's decision. And I'm looking forward to seeing what it is that you guys actually decide."
A French version of this article appeared on VICE Québec.
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