Earlier this year I had a book chapter, titled “Stuck on the Agenda: Drawing Lessons from the Stagnation of “Lawful Access” Legislation in Canada” published in Law, Privacy and Surveillance in Canada in the Post-Snowden Era. The book was edited by Michael Geist and is freely available in .pdf format from the University of Ottawa Press. The edited collection brings together many of Canada’s leading thinkers on privacy and national security issues, with authors outlining how Canadian-driven intelligence operations function, the legal challenges facing Canadian signals intelligence operations, and ways to reform Canada’s ongoing signals intelligence operations and the laws authorizing those operations.
The book arguably represents the best, and most comprehensive, examination of the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) in recent history. While not providing insiders’ accounts, many of the chapters draw from access to information documents, documents provided to journalists by Edward Snowden, and publicly available information concerning how intelligence operations are conducted by Canadian authorities. In aggregate they critically investigate the actual and alleged intelligence practices undertaken by Canadian authorities.
My contribution focuses on the politics associated with Canada’s lawful access legislation, and identifies some of the political conditions that may precede successful opposition to legislation that expands or reifies both domestic and foreign intelligence surveillance practices. Specifically, the chapter begins by outlining how agenda-setting operates and the roles of different agendas, tactics, and framings. Next, it turns to the Canadian case and identifies key actors, actions, and stages of the lawful access debates. The agenda-setting literature lets us identify and explain why opponents of the Canadian legislation were so effective in hindering its passage and what the future holds for opposing similar legislative efforts in Canada. The final section steps away from the Canadian case to suggest that there are basic as well as additive general conditions that may precede successful political opposition to newly formulated or revealed government surveillance powers that focus on either domestic or signals intelligence operations. You can read the chapter on pages 256-283.
I’ve published a new paper titled “Beyond Privacy: Articulating the Broader Harms of Pervasive Mass Surveillance” in Media and Communication. Media and Communication is an open access journal; you can download the article from any location, to any computer, free of cost. The paper explores how dominant theories of privacy grapple with the pervasive mass surveillance activities undertaken by western signals intelligence activities, including those of the NSA, CSE, GCHQ, GCSB, and ASD. I ultimately argue that while these theories provide some recourse to individuals and communities, they are not sufficiently holistic to account for how mass surveillance affects the most basic elements a democracy. As such, I suggest that academic critics of signals intelligence activities can avail themselves to theory from the Frankfurt School to more expansively examine and critique contemporary signals intelligence surveillance practices.
This article begins by recounting a series of mass surveillance practices conducted by members of the “Five Eyes” spying alliance. While boundary- and intersubjectivity-based theories of privacy register some of the harms linked to such practices I demonstrate how neither are holistically capable of registering these harms. Given these theories’ deficiencies I argue that critiques of signals intelligence surveillance practices can be better grounded on why the practices intrude on basic communicative rights, including those related to privacy. The crux of the argument is that pervasive mass surveillance erodes essential boundaries between public and private spheres by compromising populations’ abilities to freely communicate with one another and, in the process, erodes the integrity of democratic processes and institutions. Such erosions are captured as privacy violations but, ultimately, are more destructive to the fabric of society than are registered by theories of privacy alone. After demonstrating the value of adopting a communicative rights approach to critique signals intelligence surveillance I conclude by arguing that this approach also lets us clarify the international normative implications of such surveillance, that it provides a novel way of conceptualizing legal harm linked to the surveillance, and that it showcases the overall value of focusing on the implications of interfering with communications first, and as such interferences constituting privacy violations second. Ultimately, by adopting this Habermasian inspired mode of analysis we can develop more holistic ways of conceptualizing harms associated with signals intelligence practices than are provided by either boundary- or intersubjective-based theories of privacy.
Photo credit: Retro Printers by Steven Mileham (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/5m5pyK
Canadian SIGINT Summaries
The Canadian SIGINT Summaries includes downloadable copies, along with summary, publication, and original source information, of leaked CSE documents.
Parsons, Christopher; and Molnar, Adam. (2021). “Horizontal Accountability and Signals Intelligence: Lesson Drawing from Annual Electronic Surveillance Reports,” David Murakami Wood and David Lyon (Eds.), Big Data Surveillance and Security Intelligence: The Canadian Case.
Parsons, Christopher. (2015). “Stuck on the Agenda: Drawing lessons from the stagnation of ‘lawful access’ legislation in Canada,” Michael Geist (ed.), Law, Privacy and Surveillance in Canada in the Post-Snowden Era (Ottawa University Press).
Parsons, Christopher. (2015). “The Governance of Telecommunications Surveillance: How Opaque and Unaccountable Practices and Policies Threaten Canadians,” Telecom Transparency Project.
Parsons, Christopher. (2015). “Beyond the ATIP: New methods for interrogating state surveillance,” in Jamie Brownlee and Kevin Walby (Eds.), Access to Information and Social Justice (Arbeiter Ring Publishing).
Bennett, Colin; Parsons, Christopher; Molnar, Adam. (2014). “Forgetting and the right to be forgotten” in Serge Gutwirth et al. (Eds.), Reloading Data Protection: Multidisciplinary Insights and Contemporary Challenges.
Bennett, Colin, and Parsons, Christopher. (2013). “Privacy and Surveillance: The Multi-Disciplinary Literature on the Capture, Use, and Disclosure of Personal information in Cyberspace” in W. Dutton (Ed.), Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies.
McPhail, Brenda; Parsons, Christopher; Ferenbok, Joseph; Smith, Karen; and Clement, Andrew. (2013). “Identifying Canadians at the Border: ePassports and the 9/11 legacy,” in Canadian Journal of Law and Society 27(3).
Parsons, Christopher; Savirimuthu, Joseph; Wipond, Rob; McArthur, Kevin. (2012). “ANPR: Code and Rhetorics of Compliance,” in European Journal of Law and Technology 3(3).