Over the past several months I’ve had the distinct honour to work with, and learn from, a number of close colleagues and friends on the topic of surveillance and censorship that takes place on WeChat. We have published a report with the Citizen Lab entitled, “We Chat, They Watch: How International Users Unwittingly Build up WeChat’s Chinese Censorship Apparatus.” The report undertook a mixed methods approach to understand how non-China registered WeChat accounts were subjected to surveillance which was, then, used to develop a censorship list that is applied to users who have registered their accounts in China. Specifically, the report:
Presents results from technical experiments which reveal that WeChat communications conducted entirely among non-China-registered accounts are subject to pervasive content surveillance that was previously thought to be exclusively reserved for China-registered accounts.
Documents and images transmitted entirely among non-China-registered accounts undergo content surveillance wherein these files are analyzed for content that is politically sensitive in China.
Upon analysis, files deemed politically sensitive are used to invisibly train and build up WeChat’s Chinese political censorship system.
From public information, it is unclear how Tencent uses non-Chinese-registered users’ data to enable content blocking or which policy rationale permits the sharing of data used for blocking between international and China regions of WeChat.
Tencent’s responses to data access requests failed to clarify how data from international users is used to enable political censorship of the platform in China.
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.
The paper focuses exclusively on the mechanisms which are needed for civil society actors to evaluate the propriety of actions undertaken by signals intelligence agencies. In it, we argue that Canada’s foreign signals intelligence agency’s public accountability reporting might be enhanced by drawing on lessons from existing statutory electronic surveillance reporting. Focusing exclusively on Canada’s signals intelligence agency, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), we first outline the relationships between accountability of government agencies to their respective Ministers and Members of Parliament, the role of transparency in enabling governmental accountability to the public, and the link between robust accountability regimes and democratic legitimacy of government action. Next, we feature a contemporary bulk data surveillance practice undertaken by Canada’s signals intelligence agency and the deficiencies in how CSE’s existing review body makes the Establishment’s practices publicly accountable to Parliamentarians and the public alike. We then discuss how proposed changes to CSE oversight and review mechanisms will not clearly rectify the existing public accountability deficits. We conclude by proposing a principle-based framework towards a robust public accountability process that is linked to those underlying domestic and foreign statutory electronic surveillance reports.
The Canadian SIGINT Summaries includes downloadable copies, along with summary, publication, and original source information, of leaked CSE documents.
Molnar, Adam; Parsons, Christopher; Zoauve, Erik. (2017). “Computer network operations and ‘rule-with-law’ in Australia,” Internet Policy Review6(1).
Parsons, Christopher; Israel, Tamir. (2016). “Gone Opaque? An Analysis of Hypothetical IMSI Catcher Overuse in Canada,” Citizen Lab – Telecom Transparency Project // CIPPIC.
Parsons, Christopher. (2015). “Beyond Privacy: Articulating the Broader Harms of Pervasive Mass Surveillance,” Media and Communication 3(3).
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).
Parsons, Christopher; and Molnar, Adam. (2014). “Watching Below: Dimensions of Surveillance-by-UAVs in Canada” for the Surveillance Studies Centre and British Columbia Civil Liberties Association.
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).