Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Data storage, surveillance, and privacy

University of Ottawa professor Roland Paris writes on the approach of the total surveillance society (Roland Paris, "The total surveillance society approaches," Ottawa Citizen, 22 December 2011):
We will soon reach the point where governments will have the capacity, should they wish it, to monitor, record, and permanently archive the communications and activities of their citizens from birth to death. That’s the sobering message of a new Brookings Institution report by John Villasenor, an engineering professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“Within the next few years,” he writes, “it will be technically possible and financially feasible for authoritarian governments to record nearly everything that is said or done within their borders — every phone conversation, electronic message, social media interaction, the movements of nearly every person and vehicle, and video from every street corner.”

The machinery for such monitoring — from intercepting electronic communications to recording images of faces and licence plates in public spaces — already exists and is rapidly improving. Yet, it is the plummeting cost of data storage that makes total surveillance a real possibility.

Consider this: The audio for all the telephone calls made by a single person over the course of one year could be recorded using roughly 3.3 gigabytes of storage space. [...]

Some might dismiss this vision as a dystopian fantasy. But why wouldn’t countries with records of using every tool at their disposal to monitor their citizens also take advantage of these new surveillance and data storage capacities as they become available? And isn’t it true that even in liberal democracies with strong privacy laws, including Canada, we have also seen a gradual shrinking of private space and pressures for more ubiquitous surveillance?

The main benefit of Villasenor’s report — like that of other stylized visions of the future, including George Orwell’s — may not be its specific predictions, but rather, its ability to shock us into seeing real-time trends that might otherwise go unnoticed, including in our own society. Indeed, it speaks to the importance of a different kind of heightened vigilance: not of our fellow citizens, but of our right to remain largely hidden from the constant gaze of the state.
The data storage capabilities are certainly on the way.

CSE is currently building the "largest repository of Top Secret information in Canada", including a data centre that, if its apparent size is any indication, could contain as much as one third of the storage capacity of the massive NSA data centre currently under construction at Camp Williams, Utah (which probably will store exabytes or even yottabytes of data).

There is no reason to think that Canadians will be the primary subjects of the data that CSE will be storing (although if the adjacent CSIS will also be a major user of the facility, and that's not necessarily unlikely, data on Canadians could comprise a major part of its contents).

Fortunately, we have the Office of the CSE Commissioner to assure Canadians that CSE does not violate Canadian law, including such privacy protections as exist in Canadian law. For the most part the Commissioner's annual reports have provided important reassurance in this respect.

These reports would be a heck of a lot more reassuring, however, if the government would finally get off its ass and act to resolve the dispute that has been going on between successive CSE Commissioners and the Minister of National Defence for at least SEVEN YEARS over the legality of some of CSE's surveillance activities.

The Commissioner's 2009-2010 annual report provided the welcome news that a resolution to the dispute was finally in sight: the Minister of National Defence had promised the Commissioner that "clarification of ambiguities and other amendments to the [National Defence Act] are a legislative priority."

Unfortunately, the Harper government has a lot of priorities. The MND's promise was made sometime in the year that ended in March 2010. Since that time, the government has introduced at least 90 bills in parliament.

Let's just say it's a good thing that these guys don't consider the privacy of Canadians a NON-priority.


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