Wark on the metadata question
Wesley Wark explains why Canadians should care about metadata ("Yes, metadata spying is a big deal," Ottawa Citizen, 18 June 2013):
Metadata snooping, as the CSEC Commissioner’s June 13 letter suggests, may be directed at foreign targets, may be lawful and may respect the privacy of Canadians. Is this the end of the story? Not even for the CSEC Commissioner. The problem is that the metadata program was signed off on by a secret Ministerial Directive, was kept secret even by the watchdog agency, was kept out of the reach of parliamentary review. The revelations about a program that has existed in Canada since 2004 are too recent, and we know too little about it, to be reassured so easily. In documents obtained by the Globe and Mail through Access to Information, even the operational definition of metadata is heavily redacted. Moreover, it is now clear that the watchdog agency had serious reservations about the program when it competed its first study (classified Top Secret) in January 2008. Five years have since elapsed and five years is a very long time in the fast-paced world of intelligence gathering and communications advances.
Metadata may be described as “data about data” or as the envelope, not the contents, of messages. But we also know two things: that intelligence agencies are investing in metadata collection very heavily and, we have to assume, with an intention of gaining real intelligence payoffs. We also know that metadata collection, in its aggregate, can tell security and intelligence services a great deal about the people sending such messages.
It was a technique used, in a famous recent case, to unlock the nature of the communications between Paula Broadbent and General David Petraeus, that led to the resignation of Petraeus as head of the CIA and the tarnishing of his military career. That metadata collection can help catch terrorists and foil terrorist plots, as senior U.S. officials have stated, is not in doubt. What is in doubt is the broad reach of metadata and its implications for democratic society.
Canadians have the same right to a “national debate” as President Obama promised the American public. And we have the same kinds of questions, not to be turned aside by suggestions that we are all being hysterical about Big Brother. The questions are these: What is metadata in the hands of intelligence services? How exactly is the privacy of Canadian communications, guaranteed under the law, to be protected? How adequate is the current law given fast-paced changes in communications technologies and practices? How can we make our watchdog agencies more useful and less secretive in speaking to Parliament and the Canadian public? How can we know that metadata collection is proportionally worth the potential intrusions it brings to the lives of Canadians? This is not a “manufactured” story as Ray Boisvert, the former deputy director of CSIS, has tried to suggest. It’s a real story and deserves a mature and substantial response — from government, from the agencies doing the collection, such as CSEC, from the watchdog agency, from Parliament, from the media and from Canadians.