I’d like to think that I’d be surprised and outraged — but the fact is that I’m not. And that’s worrying enough in itself.
Call it Tory-fatigue, call it what you like, but the revelation late last week that federal agencies had asked telephone companies 1.2 million times to release private customer information in 2011 — and that the companies had co-operated with the federal authorities at least 784,756 times that year — didn’t exactly have me leaping for the battlements.
Now, what was released was very limited information: no one’s saying how often the telephone companies released the information without warrants, and those same companies are flatly refusing to give even the most basic information to interim federal Privacy Commissioner Chantal Bernier, an independent officer of the House of Commons.
Bernier said her office has repeatedly asked telecom companies to provide information about the calls — but it seems the phone companies have no compunction about simply ignoring her requests. The release of the 2011 information by her office, the only information they have been able to obtain, raises more questions than it answers.
“What we would like is for those warrantless disclosures to simply be represented in statistics so that Canadians have an idea of the scope of the phenomenon,” Bernier told the Financial Post.
Sounds like a basic kind of request, and the sort of inquiry that a privacy commissioner should be making. The release of the information will not compromise any investigations, because it would simply be a statistical roadmap of what the federal agencies are doing. The only way such a review could actually affect access to the information is if it turned out that the Canadian public was so outraged by the government’s abuse of spying powers that the sampling was stopped.
But here’s the thing: it’s more and more difficult to find yourself in a situation where you’re amazed by the federal government’s behaviour. Snatch a minister right out of cabinet and slap him on the bench without even a cooling-off period so that the stench of his partisan politics had chance to at least clear a little? Nope. Example A — Vic Toews. Apparently you can stand with the child pornographers, or you can stand with the Court of Queen’s Bench of Manitoba.
Unremittingly gag federal scientists so that you can claim you’re following scientific advice, while actually doing whatever the heck you please? Too many examples to count.
Take part in broad-ranging corporate and diplomatic espionage to help other nations gather information that their own laws have made it difficult to collect? Check — not that our government has ever been clear about why it’s helping others sidestep their own laws, and whether there’s some juicy quid pro quo involved.
Have a federal taxation agency suddenly take an interest in auditing any non-profit agency that is both outspoken and not following the idealogical bent of the existing government? It’s magical, unethical, and it’s happening right now.
Luckily, though, our federal government is taking this allegation of warrantless telephone interceptions more seriously than most things. Asked about the revelation in the House of Commons, the prime minister managed to find something to say about 1.2 million requests.
“What we do understand is that various Canadian investigative law enforcement and other agencies will, from time to time, request information from telecom companies. They always do this in accordance with the law. They always seek a warrant when they are required to do so. Of course, we expect the telecom companies to also respect the law in all of their dealings.”
(“From time to time,” by the way, at least for 2011, is once every 26 seconds, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks of the year.)
Luckily, the prime minister clarified his position with the just-as-nebulous, “Mr. Speaker, telecommunications companies obviously do co-operate with law enforcement and other authorities from time to time in various investigations and surveillance. When information is required to be handed over according to a warrant, our law enforcement agencies do that. As I said, there is independent oversight to ensure that is done.”
From time to time, of course, is still every 26 seconds.
A third answer was just as clear: “The reality is that law enforcement and other investigative agencies will, from time to time, request information, as is their right. They always obtain a warrant when it is required by law. Of course, we expect the telecom companies to comply with those obligations as well.”
From time to time, the prime minister appears to be stonewalling. Not every 26 seconds, but pretty close.
Truth is, though, it’s this government’s approach to every concern — it’s hard to imagine any behaviour they could be caught at that would come close to embarrassing them.
But what does it mean when you realize that you can’t conceive of anything that’s beyond your present federal government?
Russell Wangersky is editorial news editor of the St. John’s Telegram. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.