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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.

Beyond ATIP: New Methods for Researching State Surveillance Practices

9781894037679I’ve had a book chapter, titled “Beyond ATIP: New Methods for Researching State Surveillance,” published in Access To Information And Social Justice: Critical Research Strategies for Journalists, Scholars, and Activists. The book was edited by Jamie Brownlee and Kevin Walby and is available for purchase at a variety of brick and mortar, as well as online, book vendors. The book combines political and practical aspects of Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) research in a single volume. In addition to exposing how ATIP-related documents have led to major, nation-affecting, news stories the book helps Canadian citizens use and navigate the federal access to information processes.

My contribution argued the ATIP process must be supplemented when  investigating particularly secretive government practices. I drew from work that I conducted at the Citizen Lab as part of the Telecommunications Transparency Project, specifically focusing on activities undertaken between January-August 2014.

Full Abstract

This chapter focuses on the challenges of studying the difficult and often obscure issues of Canadian state and corporate surveillance. Researchers routinely turn to Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) requests to cut through this obscurity, but the laws are often too weak, too poorly enforced, or too full of deliberate loopholes and blind spots to provide comprehensive awareness about surveillance. Thus, additional methodological techniques are needed to pierce the veil of government secrecy. But what kinds of techniques can be successful, what are their limitations, and how effective are they? How can researchers better understand the kinds of surveillance programs that the federal government is conducting now, and has conducted in the past? I begin by discussing the merits and drawbacks of federal ATIP legislation, a legal tool that is routinely used to learn about the scope and dimensions of state surveillance. In light of the ATIP regime’s relative limits in revealing the contours of federal surveillance, I discuss how researchers can use a variety of political, regulatory, and legal techniques to increase government accountability and corporate transparency. Importantly, the methodological proposals I assess have the effect of adding as opposed to replacing data received under ATIP. By adopting an expanded set of methodological techniques, researchers can better fill out and make sense of the often limited revelations that emerge from the ATIP process.

Purchase the book from Amazon.ca // Pre-order from Amazon.com

Image credit: Book cover from Jamie Brownlee and Kevin Walby (Eds.). http://arpbooks.org/books/detail/access-to-information-and-social-justice

Canadian Transparency Publications

stack by hobvias sudoneighm (CC BY 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/Fecq6

Academics, private companies, journalists, non-government organizations, and government agencies have all made significant contributions to the telecommunications transparency debate in Canada since the beginning of this year. This post briefly describes the most significant contributions along with links to the relevant publications.

Academic Transparency Publications

Several academic groups published reports addressing telecommunications privacy and transparency issues. The Telecom Transparency Project published “The Governance of Telecommunications Surveillance: How Opaque and Unaccountable Practices and Policies Threaten Canadians,” which explored how much telecommunications surveillance occurs in Canada, what actors enable the surveillance, to what degree those actors disclose their involvement in (and the magnitude of) surveillance, and what degree of oversight is given to the federal governments’ surveillance practices. Two other reports, “Keeping Internet Users in the Know or in the Dark: 2014 Report on Data Privacy Transparency of Canadian Internet Service Providers” and “The 3+3 Project: Evaluating Canada’s Wireless Carriers’ Data Privacy Transparency,” analyzed the privacy practices of major Canadian telecommunications providers. The former report evaluated the data privacy transparency of the most significant forty-three Internet carriers serving the Canadian public and ranked the carriers against ten questions. In contrast, the latter report used 10 criteria to evaluate Canada’s three largest wireless carriers and their extension brands to establish how transparent they were about their privacy practices and how they treated subscribers’ personal information.

Corporate Reports and Guidance

A trio of telecommunications companies also released transparency reports in the first half of 2015. WIND Mobile’s Mobile Transparency (2014) revealed a significant decrease in requests for customer name and address information, and a modest increase of emergency response requests combined with an explosion of court ordered/legislative demands requests. TELUS and Rogers also released transparency reports; overall TELUS’ report shows a small decrease in government requests whereas Rogers’ report shows a significant decrease of roughly 60,000 fewer requests. The relative merits of companies’ transparency reports were discussed in the Telecom Transparency Project’s report, mentioned previously. Industry Canada also released transparency reporting guidelines to “help private organizations be open with their customers, regarding the management and sharing of their personal information with government, while respecting the work of law enforcement, national security agencies, and regulatory authorities.” Some thoughts on those guidelines were published by Michael Geist as well as by the Telecom Transparency Project.

Government Investigations into Domestic Data Collection

During this time the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada also audited how the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) collected and used subscriber data. This data was obtained from Canadian telecommunications companies. The Office found that, “the RCMP’s information management systems were not designed to identify files which contained warrantless access requests to subscriber information, we were unable to select a representative sample of files to review. Consequently, we were unable to assess the sufficiency of controls that may exist or if the collection of warrantless requests from TSPs was, or was not in compliance with the collection requirements of the Privacy Act.” The challenges experienced by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada were perhaps unsurprising, given that the RCMP stated in 2014 that they did not have a way of tracking subscriber data requests in response to questions from MP Charmaine Borg.

Signals Intelligence-Related Publications

There have also been a series of contributions that have focused prominently on Canada’s foreign signals intelligence organization, the Communications Security Establishment. Michael Geist’s edited collection, Law, Privacy and Surveillance in the Post-Snowden Era, contains nine contributions grouped into three parts: understanding surveillance in Canada, legal issues, and prospects for reform. In addition to Geist’s collection, two Canadian archives have been created to host Snowden documents. The first, “The Snowden Archives,” is hosted by the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. The Snowden Archives contain approximately 400 documents and were compiled “to provide a tool that would facilitate citizen and researcher access to these important documents.” The second is the “Canadian SIGINT Summaries” which collate leaked documents that are exclusively linked to CSE’s operations. The SIGINT Summaries identify when the documents were created, provide a summary of the documents themselves, and also include metadata such as length, codenames, and news stories linked with the documents’ publication. Finally, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the Globe and Mail have both published stories based on Snowden documents.

Summary

Overall, there has been an exceptional amount written on telecom transparency issues in Canada. Several transparency reports are expected later this year from Sasktel, MTS Allstream, and TekSavvy. And the Canadian Internet Registration Authority, though its Community Investment Program, is funding projects which will help Canadians request their personal information from public and private organizations alike as well as to help companies develop transparency reports. The coming months promise to continue being busy for transparency in Canada!

Photo Credit: stack by hobvias sudoneighm (CC BY 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/Fecq6

This post first appeared at the Telecom Transparency Project website.

Industry Canada Transparency Report Guidelines Intensely Problematic

5548494699_47f9267020_o-300x200Industry Canada has published guidelines for telecommunications companies to provide transparency reports. The guidelines are ostensibly meant to help companies that want to disclose the regularity, rationale, and extent of Canadian governmental requests for private telecommunications data. The guidelines may actually, however, establish government-sanctioned flaws in transparency reporting and prevent companies from meaningfully informing their customers about government telecommunications surveillance.

We begin this post by briefly summarizing the importance and value of transparency reporting and why Canadian companies should adopt and publish transparency reports. Second, we outline how Industry Canada’s guidelines may enhance transparency reporting. Third, we summarize the significant deficits linked to the guidelines and conclude by discussing how the guidelines could be improved to bring about meaningful and holistic corporate telecommunications transparency reporting.

Background to Transparency Reporting

We discussed the importance of transparency reporting in our recent report, “The Governance of Telecommunications Surveillance: How Opaque and Unaccountable Practices and Policies Threaten Canadians.” Transparency reporting involves companies publicly disclosing data that holds a public interest; telecommunications transparency reports are generally meant to provide complex information in an accessible and factual manner so that subscribers can subsequently make reasonable judgements based on the disclosures. Canadian telecommunications transparency reports have largely focused on policing and security issues to date, and have been released by Rogers, TELUS, Sasktel, TekSavvy, MTS Allstream, and Wind Mobile.

The Citizen Lab and the Telecom Transparency Project have actively encouraged telecommunications companies to release transparency reports. Together, these organizations have written public letters to telecommunications service providers, developed and launched a tool so that Canadians can learn about providers’ data retention and disclosure policies, conducted interviews concerning transparency and surveillance issues in Canada, and filed access to information and privacy requests to understand government surveillance practices. The result of our efforts to date are captured in a report that we released in June 2015, as are a series of recommendations for how members of the telecommunications industry could improve their transparency reports. In the following sections we examine the extent to which Industry Canada’s recently issued guidance aligns with our policy recommendations.

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