The Policy and Political Implications of ‘Securing Canada’s Telecommunications Systems’

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Photo by Troy Squillaci on Pexels.com

Many of Canada’s closest allies have either firmly or softly blocked Huawei and ZTE from selling telecommunications equipment to Internet service providers in their countries over the past several years. After repeated statements from Canadian government officials that a review of Huawei equipment was ongoing, on May 19, 2022 the government announced its own bans on Huawei and ZTE equipment. The government published an accompanying policy statement from Innovation, Science, and Economic Development (ISED) Canada on the same day.

This post begins by summarizing the possible risks that Chinese vendors might pose to Canadian networks. Next, it moves to discuss the current positions of Canada’s closest allies as well as Canada’s actions and statements pertaining to Chinese telecommunications vendors leading up to the May 2022 announcement. It then proceeds to unpack the government’s “Securing Canada’s Telecommunications System” policy statement. Some highlight findings include:

  • The government is unclear when it refers to “supply chain breaches”;
  • The government may be banning Huawei and ZTE principally on the basis of American export restrictions placed on Chinese vendors and, thus, be following the same model as the United Kingdom which was forced to ban Huawei following American actions; and
  • Establishing the security and protection of telecommunications systems as an “overriding objective” of Canadian telecommunications policy could have long-term implications for Canadians’ privacy interests.

The post concludes by discussing the policy and political implications of the policy statement, why any telecommunications security reforms must not be accompanied by broader national security and law enforcement reforms, and why the Canadian government should work with allied and friendly countries to collectively assess telecommunications equipment.

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The (In)effectiveness of Voluntarily Produced Transparency Reports

Payphones by Christopher Parsons (All Rights Reserved)

I have a paper on telecommunications transparency reports which has been accepted for publication in Business and Society for later this year.

Centrally, the paper finds that companies will not necessarily produce easily comparable reports in relatively calm political waters and that, even should reports become comparable, they may conceal as much as they reveal. Using a model for evaluating transparency reporting used by Fung, Graham, and Weil in their 2007 book, Full Disclosure: The Perils and Promises of Transparency, I find that the reports issued by telecommunications companies are somewhat effective because they have led to changes in corporate behaviour and stakeholder interest, but have have been largely ineffective in prodding governments to behave more accountably. Moreover, reports issued by Canadian companies routinely omit how companies themselves are involved in facilitating government surveillance efforts when not legally required to do so. In effect, transparency reporting — even if comparable across industry partners — risks treating the symptom — the secrecy of surveillance — without getting to the cause — how surveillance is facilitated by firms themselves.

A pre-copyedited version of the paper, titled, “The (In)effectiveness of Voluntarily Produced Transparency Reports,” is available at the Social Sciences Research Network.

Transparency in Surveillance: Role of various intermediaries in facilitating state surveillance transparency

‘Communication’ by urbanfeel (CC BY-ND 2.0) at https://flic.kr/p/4HzMbw

Last year a report that I wrote for the Centre for Law and Democracy was published online. The report, “Transparency in Surveillance: Role of various intermediaries in facilitating state surveillance transparency,” discusses how governments have expanded their surveillance capabilities in an effort to enhance law enforcement, foreign intelligence, and cybersecurity powers and the implications of such expansions. After some of these powers are outlined and the impact on communicating parties clarified, I explore how the voluntary activities undertaken by communications intermediaries can also facilitate government surveillance activities. However, while private companies can facilitate government surveillance they can also facilitate transparency surrounding the surveillance by proactively working to inform their users about government activities. The report concluded by discussing the broader implications of contemporary state surveillance practices, with a focus on the chilling effects that these practices have on social discourse writ large.

Cite as: Parsons, Christopher. (2016). “Transparency in Surveillance: Role of various intermediaries in facilitating state surveillance transparency,” Centre for Law and Democracy. Available at: http://responsible-tech.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Parsons.pdf

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Canada’s National Security Consultation: Digital Anonymity & Subscriber Identification Revisited… Yet Again

Phone by Any & Carrie Coleman

Phone by Any & Carrie Coleman (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/4jtzjb

Last month, Public Safety Canada followed through on commitments to review and consult on Canada’s national security framework. The process reviews powers that were passed into law following the passage of Bill C-51, Canada’s recent controversial anti-terrorism overhaul, as well as invite a broader debate about Canada’s security apparatus. While many consultation processes have explored expansions of Canada’s national security framework, the current consultation constitutes the first modern day attempt to explore Canada’s national security excesses and deficiencies. Unfortunately, the framing of the consultation demonstrates minimal direct regard for privacy and civil liberties because it is primarily preoccupied with defending the existing security framework while introducing a range of additional intrusive powers. Such powers include some that have been soundly rejected by the Canadian public as drawing the wrong balance between digital privacy and law enforcement objectives, and heavily criticized by legal experts as well as by all of Canada’s federal and provincial privacy commissioners

The government has framed the discussion in two constituent documents, a National Security Green Paper and an accompanying Background Document. The government’s framings of the issues are highly deficient. Specifically, the consultation documents make little attempt to explain the privacy and civil liberties implications that can result from the contemplated powers. And while the government is open to suggestions on privacy and civil liberties-enhancing measures, few such proposals are explored in the document itself. Moreover, key commitments, such as the need to impose judicial control over Canada’s foreign intelligence agency (CSE) and regulate the agency’s expansive metadata surveillance activities, are neither presented nor discussed (although the government has mentioned independently that it still hopes to introduce such reforms). The consultation documents also fail to provide detailed suggestions for improving government accountability and transparency surrounding state agencies’ use of already-existent surveillance and investigative tools. 

In light of these deficiencies, we will be discussing a number of the consultation document’s problematic elements in a series of posts, beginning with the government’s reincarnation of a highly controversial telecommunication subscriber identification power.

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The Limits of Tower Dump Privacy Protections in Canada

290822052_cccfe6d6ee_oOn January 14, 2016, the Ontario Superior Court ruled that “tower dumps” – the mass release of data collected by cellphone towers at the request of law enforcement agencies – violate privacy rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In response, Justice Sproat outlined a series of guidelines for authorities to adhere to when requesting tower dump warrants in the future.

I wrote about this case for PEN Canada. I began by summarizing the issue of the case and then proceeded to outline some of the highlights of Justice Sproat’s decision. The conclusion of the article focuses on the limits of that decision: it does not promote statutory reporting of tower dumps and thus Canadians will not learn how often such requests are made; it does not require notifying those affected by tower dumps; it does not mean Canadians will know if data collected in a tower dump is used in a subsequent process against them. Finally, the guidelines are not precedent-setting and so do not represent binding obligations on authorities requesting the relevant production orders.

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Photo credit: cell tower next to the casita by dasroofless (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/rGxgj

Why We Need to Reevaluate How We Share Intelligence Data With Allies

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Last week, Canadians learned that their foreign signals intelligence agency, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), had improperly shared information with their American, Australian, British, and New Zealand counterparts (collectively referred to as the “Five Eyes”). The exposure was unintentional: Techniques that CSE had developed to de-identify metadata with Canadians’ personal information failed to keep Canadians anonymous when juxtaposed with allies’ re-identification capabilities. Canadians recognize the hazards of such exposures given that lax information-sharing protocols with US agencies which previously contributed to the mistaken rendition and subsequent torture of a Canadian citizen in 2002.

Tamir Israel (of CIPPIC) and I wrote and article for Just Security following these revelations. We focused on the organization’s efforts, and failure, to suppress Canadians’ identity information that is collected as part of CSE’s ongoing intelligence activities and the broader implications of erroneous information sharing. Specifically, we focus on how such sharing can have dire life consequences for those who are inappropriately targeted as a result by Western allies and how such sharing has led to the torture of a Canadian citizen. We conclude by arguing that the collection and sharing of such information raises questions regarding the ongoing viability of the agency’s old-fashioned mandates that bifurcate Canadian and non-Canadian persons’ data in light of the integrated nature of contemporary communications systems and data exchanges with foreign partners.

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Authors

Tamir Israel

Tamir is staff lawyer with the Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy & Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law, where he conducts research and advocacy on various digital rights-related topics, with a focus on online privacy and anonymity, net neutrality, intellectual property, intermediary liability, spam, e-commerce, and consumer protection generally.

Christopher Parsons

Dr. Christopher Parsons received his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of Guelph, and his Ph.D from the University of Victoria. He is currently the Managing Director of the Telecom Transparency Project and a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Citizen Lab, in the Munk School of Global Affairs.

Photo credit: Spies by Kieran Lamb (CC BY-SA 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/416nVf