February 11 was The Day We Fight Back against mass surveilance. Conceived in the U.S. to focus the protest against NSA surveillance of U.S. citizens, Open Media Canada adopted the occasion to protest the same type of mass surveillance carried out by the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) against Canadian citizens. I happily took advantage of the day to tell my MP how I feel. Coincidentally, he’s also the Minister responsible for the CSE.

From: Rick Pali [rpali@alienshore.com]
Sent: February 11, 2014 1:28 PM
To: rob.nicholson.a1@parl.gc.ca
Subject: We don’t want to be spied upon!

Today is #TheDayWeFightBack and I want to state in the strongest terms that law-abiding Canadians do not want their own government spying on them. Whether my calls, e‑mail, web-traffic, or my meta-data, it’s not the government’s business unless a judge says otherwise.

And it’s doubly insulting that we have to pay for it.

Stop spying on us.

I was surprised when a reply arrived. It’s not the type of message for which I would expect a reply. I was less surprised that the reply arrived three weeks after I’d written. At this rate, the next time I write and receive a reply, it’ll be months in coming. Anyway, here’s what I got:

From: <dnd_mdn@forces.gc.ca>
Subject: RE: We don’t want to be spied upon!
Date: March 5, 2014 at 3:22:26 PM EST
To: <rpali@alienshore.com>

Dear Mr. Pali:

As the Minister responsible for the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), I want to thank you for sharing your concerns about privacy issues.

CSE’s role is to collect foreign intelligence to protect Canada and Canadians from threats at home and around the world. CSE is also responsible for protecting government computer networks and systems, as well as the information that they contain.

In fulfilling these roles, CSE considers respecting the privacy of Canadians to be its most important principle. I can assure you that all of CSE’s activities are conducted in full compliance with Canadian law. This includes the National Defence Act, the Privacy Act, the Charter of

Rights and Freedoms, and the Criminal Code. Under the law, CSE does not target the communications of Canadians anywhere or of any person in Canada through its foreign intelligence activities.

The independent CSE Commissioner, a supernumerary judge, reviews CSE activities to ensure that they comply with the law. The Commissioner and his staff have full access to CSE facilities, staff, and records. The Commissioner has never found CSE to have acted unlawfully. In fact, he has specifically noted CSE’s culture of lawful compliance and genuine concern for protecting the privacy of Canadians.

I trust that this information is helpful, and thank you again for writing.

Yours truly,
Hon. Rob Nicholson, PC, QC, MP
Minister of National Defence

Given all that we’ve learned about the CSE’s activities, this is no real reply. Further, the minister’s assistant entirely missed my point. I thought I’d better clarify.

From: Rick Pali <rpali@alienshore.com>
To: dnd_mdn@forces.gc.ca
Date: March 9, 2014 at 11:08:08 PM EDT
Subject: Re: We don’t want to be spied upon!

Mr. Nicholson,

Thank you for your reply.

> As the Minister responsible for the Communications Security Establishment (CSE)

I know who you are. You’re also my MP.

> In fulfilling these roles, CSE considers respecting the privacy of
> Canadians to be its most important principle. I can assure you that all
> of CSE’s activities are conducted in full compliance with Canadian law.

I find all of this hard to believe, especially considering that the Canadians you mention have no idea what the CSE does. Of course we have broad overviews and no end of assurances, but I feel less than assured. It could be true, but as I said, I’m far from convinced.

I’m not sure you really understood my intent in writing you when I said that Canadians don’t want to be spied upon by their own government. I understand that the CSE doesn’t listen to my phone calls, but you’ve said that harvesting metadata is legal, so whenever I make a call, the CSE knows who I am, who I am calling, how long we speak, and even where I am during the call. Legal or not, I call this spying. I suspect most Canadians feel the same way.

Given how you’ve gone out of your way to use very specific wording, I’m forced to be very careful in my understanding. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a computer translates what I say during my calls to text, so no person at the CSE is listening to my call.

Here’s another example:
> Under the law, CSE does not target the communications of
> Canadians anywhere or of any person in Canada through
> its foreign intelligence activities.

So the CSE doesn’t target Canadians. Got it. But if the CSE taps into an Internet trunk and records everything, they’re not targeting Canadians, are they? Yet the CSE still has a record of everything I do on the Internet. If you think I’m being paranoid, you have yourself to thank. As the CSE’s activities came to light, I paid close attention to your statements. As more information continued to surface, I could clearly see that most of what you stated was literally true when parsing your statements with their strictly literal meanings. But in many of those instances, the spirit of what you said was absolutely not true. That kind of sophistry will earn you nothing but skepticism once it’s discovered. And make no mistake, it’s been discovered.

Perhaps the CSE is acting in an entirely lawful manner. It could be true. But is that really where you want to set the bar? Why not do what’s right instead of what’s merely legal?

Know what I mean? And it deeply saddens me that I have to ask if you understand.

Will it make any difference? Unlikely. Will the minister even see my message? Even more unlikely.

I still feel that I need to make the effort, if only to let them know they’re not fooling us.