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I have a new draft paper that outlines why the Canadian government should develop, and publish, the guidelines it uses when determining whether to acquire, use, or disclose computer- and computer-system vulnerabilities. At its crux, the paper argues that an accountability system was developed in the 1970s based on the intrusiveness of government wiretaps and that state-used malware is just as, if not more so, intrusive. Government agencies should be held to at least as high a standard, today, as they were forty years ago (and, arguably, an even higher one today than in the past). It’s important to recognize that while the paper argues for a focus on defensive cybersecurity — disclosing vulnerabilities as a default in order to enhance the general security of all Canadians and residents of Canada, as well as to improve the security of all government of Canada institutions — it recognizes that some vulnerabilities may be retained to achieve a limited subset of investigative and intelligence operations. As such, the paper does not rule out the use of malware by state actors but, instead, seeks to restrict the use of such malware while also drawing its use into a publicly visible accountability regime.
I’m very receptive to comments on this paper and will seek to incorporate feedback before sending the paper to an appropriate journal around mid-December.
Computer security vulnerabilities can be exploited by unauthorized parties to affect targeted systems contrary to the preferences their owner or controller. Companies routinely issue patches to remediate the vulnerabilities after learning that the vulnerabilities exist. However, these flaws are sometimes obtained, used, and kept secret by government actors, who assert that revealing vulnerabilities would undermine intelligence, security, or law enforcement operations. This paper argues that a publicly visible accountability regime is needed to control the discovery, purchase, use, and reporting of computer exploits by Canadian government actors for two reasons. First, because when utilized by Canadian state actors the vulnerabilities could be leveraged to deeply intrude into the private lives of citizens, and legislative precedent indicates that such intrusions should be carefully regulated so that the legislature can hold the government to account. Second, because the vulnerabilities underlying any exploits could be discovered or used by a range of hostile operators to subsequently threaten Canadian citizens’ and residents’ of Canada personal security or the integrity of democratic institutions. On these bases, it is of high importance that the government of Canada formally develop, publish, and act according to an accountability regime that would regulate its agencies’ exploitation of computer vulnerabilities.
Download .pdf // SSRN Link
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Over the past several years I’ve undertaken research exploring how, how often, and for what reasons governments in Canada access telecommunications data. As one facet of this line of research I worked with Dr. Adam Molnar to understand the regularity at which policing agencies across Canada have sought, and obtained, warrants to lawfully engage in real-time electronic surveillance. Such data is particularly important given the regularity at which Canadian law enforcement agencies call for new powers; how effective are historical methods of capturing communications data? How useful are the statistics which are tabled by governments? We answer these questions in a paper published with the Canadian Journal of Law and Technology, entitled ‘Government Surveillance Accountability: The Failures of Contemporary Canadian Interception Reports.” The abstract, follows, as do links to the Canadian interception reports upon which we based our findings.
Real time electronic government surveillance is recognized as amongst the most intrusive types of government activity upon private citizens’ lives. There are usually stringent warranting practices that must be met prior to law enforcement or security agencies engaging in such domestic surveillance. In Canada, federal and provincial governments must report annually on these practices when they are conducted by law enforcement or the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, disclosing how often such warrants are sought and granted, the types of crimes such surveillance is directed towards, and the efficacy of such surveillance in being used as evidence and securing convictions.
This article draws on an empirical examination of federal and provincial electronic surveillance reports in Canada to examine the usefulness of Canadian governments’ annual electronic surveillance reports for legislators and external stakeholders alike to hold the government to account. It explores whether there are primary gaps in accountability, such as where there are no legislative requirements to produce records to legislators or external stakeholders. It also examines the extent to which secondary gaps exist, such as where there is a failure of legislative compliance or ambiguity related to that compliance.
We find that extensive secondary gaps undermine legislators’ abilities to hold government to account and weaken capacities for external stakeholders to understand and demand justification for government surveillance activities. In particular, these gaps arise from the failure to annually table reports, in divergent formatting of reports between jurisdictions, and in the deficient narrative explanations accompanying the tabled electronic surveillance reports. The chronic nature of these gaps leads us to argue that there are policy failures emergent from the discretion granted to government Ministers and failures to deliberately establish conditions that would ensure governmental accountability. Unless these deficiencies are corrected, accountability reporting as a public policy instrument threatens to advance a veneer of political legitimacy at the expense of maintaining fulsome democratic safeguards to secure the freedoms associated with liberal democratic political systems. We ultimately propose a series of policy proposals which, if adopted, should ensure that government accountability reporting is both substantial and effective as a policy instrument to monitor and review the efficacy of real-time electronic surveillance in Canada.
Canadian Electronic Surveillance Reports
Government of Canada
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.
‘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
Read “Transparency in Surveillance: Role of various intermediaries in facilitating state surveillance transparency“