‘Cyberman’ by Christian Cable (CC BY-NC 2.0) at https://flic.kr/p/3JuvWv
Last month a paper that I wrote with Adam Molnar and Erik Zouave was published by Internet Policy Review. The article, “Computer network operations and ‘rule-with-law’ in Australia,” explores how the Australian government is authorized to engage in Computer Network Operations (CNOs). CNOs refer to government intrusion and/or interference with network information communications infrastructures for the purposes of law enforcement and national security operations.
The crux of our argument is that Australian government agencies are relatively unconstrained in how they can use CNOs. This has come about because of overly permissive, and often outdated, legislative language concerning technology that has been leveraged in newer legislation that expands on the lawful activities which government agencies can conduct. Australian citizens are often assured that existing oversight or review bodies — vis a vis legislative assemblies or dedicated surveillance or intelligence committees — are sufficient to safeguard citizens’ rights. We argue that the laws, as currently written, compel review and oversight bodies to purely evaluate the lawfulness of CNO-related activities. This means that, so long as government agencies do not radically act beyond their already permissive legislative mandates, their oversight and review bodies will assert that their expansive activities are lawful regardless of the intrusive nature of the activities in question.
While the growing capabilities of government agencies’ lawful activities, and limitations of their review and oversight bodies, have commonalities across liberal democratic nations, Australia is in a particularly novel position. Unlike its closest allies, such as Canada, the United States, New Zealand, or the United Kingdom, Australia does not have a formal bill of rights or a regional judicial body to adjudicate on human rights. As we write, “[g]iven that government agencies possess lawful authority to conduct unbounded CNO operations and can seek relatively unbounded warrants instead of those with closely circumscribed limits, the rule of law has become distorted and replaced with rule of law [sic]”.
Ultimately, CNOs represent a significant transformation and growth of the state’s authority to intrude and affect digital information. That these activities can operate under a veil of exceptional secrecy and threaten the security of information systems raises questions about whether the state has been appropriately restrained in exercising its sovereign powers domestically and abroad: these powers have the capability to extend domestic investigations into the computers of persons around the globe, to facilitate intelligence operations that target individuals and millions of persons alike, and to damage critical infrastructure and computer records. As such, CNOs necessarily raise critical questions about the necessity and appropriateness of state activities, while also showcasing the state’s lack of accountability to the population is is charged with serving.
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 legalexperts 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.
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.
American and British officials have been warning with an increasing sense of purported urgency that their inability to decrypt communications could have serious consequences. American authorities have claimed that if they cannot demand decrypted communications from telecommunications providers then serious crimes may go unsolved. In the UK this danger is often accentuated by the threat of terrorism. In both nations, security and policing services warn that increased use of encryption is causing communications to ‘go dark’ and thus be inaccessible to policing and security services. These dire warnings of the threats potentially posed by criminals and terrorists ‘going dark’ have been matched over the years with proposals that would regulate encryption or mandatebackdoors into any otherwise secure system. Comparatively little has been said about Canada’s long-standing efforts to inhibit end-user encryption despite the federal government’s longstanding efforts to restrict the security provided to Canadians by encryption.
This article outlines some of the federal government of Canada’s successful and unsuccessful attempts to weaken cryptographic standards. It starts by explaining (in brief) what communications encryption is, why it matters, and the implications of enabling unauthorized parties to decrypt communications. With this primer out of the way, we discuss why all of Canada’s mobile telecommunications carriers agree to implement cryptographic weaknesses in their service offerings. Next, we discuss the legislation that can be used to compel telecommunications service providers to disclose decryption keys to government authorities. We then briefly note how Canada’s premier cryptologic agency, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), successfully compromised global encryption standards. We conclude the post by arguing that though Canadian officials have not been as publicly vocal about a perceived need to undermine cryptographic standards the government of Canada nevertheless has a history of successfully weakening encryption available to and used by Canadians.
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).