Website-blocking is a path to censorship

photo of Marie Aspiazu

INDEPENDENT MEDIA
by Marie Aspiazu

Now Back in September, we were shocked by Bell Canada’s overreaching proposal to introduce a mandatory website blocking system with no judicial oversight and radical new copyright rules in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which is currently being renegotiated. Not long after, rumours surfaced that Bell was planning a similar proposal at home via the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

And this January, just when we thought we’d seen it all, Bell went full throttle and spearheaded a coalition of over 25 organizations calling itself “FairPlay Canada,” including Cineplex and the CBC. This coalition has formally requested the CRTC to consider creating a website-blocking agency.

Bell’s proposal is problematic because creating a censorship committee within the federal government has a huge potential to open the floodgates to widespread Internet censorship. Website blocking schemes often result in over-blocking, as seen in the UK, where gay-teen support sites are being added to its ever growing list of blocked websites. So if this proposal goes through, it won’t be long before legitimate content and even services like Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) become the coalition’s next targets. FairPlay Canada’s proposal is an attack on Canadians’ right to free expression and our robust Net Neutrality rules that Minister Navdeep Bains and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have both expressed strong support for.

Bell’s foundations for its website blocking proposal prove rather weak. Canada is already home to some of the toughest anti-piracy laws in the world and recent reports indicate piracy rates are declining as people are rapidly shifting to legal alternatives. Plus, data shows online streaming services like Netflix, Spotify and Apple Music are thriving, demonstrating that people are willing to pay for affordable access to the content they want to watch.

But Bell seems to be telling different stories depending on its needs. On one hand, Bell is trying to convince the CRTC that piracy is a big problem in need of a radical “solution,” emphasizing how it’s leading people to cut the cord on their pricy cable packages. Simultaneously, Bell is emphasizing the success of its TV and online streaming services before business analysts, with no mention of the former.

This proposal from Bell is just one more example of the ways that Canada’s vertically integrated telecommunications companies are trampling on our Internet rights in favour of their concentrated media interests. Except, in this case, their plan won’t even help put money back into their TV assets. It’s time for Bell, and its partners, to ensure their content is available where Canadians want to watch it: online. If they offer it it, Canadians will pay.

OpenMedia has been pushing back against Bell’s censorship proposal since it first tried to sneak it into NAFTA and we will not back down. We are currently collecting comments against Bell coalition’s proposal, which we will be submitting as part of the CRTC’s comment period (ending March 29, 2018). People can also submit their comments directly to the CRTC’s we9bsite. Follow OpenMedia on Facebook and Twitter for the latest developments on Bell coalition’s proposal.

Marie Aspiazu is a campaigner and social media specialist for OpenMedia, a non-profit organization that works to keep the internet open, affordable and surveillance-free. openmedia.org

Lower cell phone bills closing the divide

photo of Marianela Ramos Capelo

INDEPENDENT MEDIA
by Marianela Ramos Capelo

In December, Canadians had a glimpse into what affordable cell phone packages could look like. The ‘Big Three’ – Bell, Telus, Rogers – released a limited-time deal that offered people 10GB of data and unlimited talk and text for $60 a month. If anything, this “too good to be true” package demonstrated that Big Telecom can afford to charge a lot less for their services than they currently do.

But this is not just about having a cheaper cell phone bill at the end of the month. Lower prices for cell service is one of the stepping stones for bridging the digital divide that puts many at a disadvantage. In Canada, we pay some of the highest prices for cell phone services in the industrialized world. This makes it a lot harder for underprivileged individuals and their families to access the Internet and and the array of socio-economic benefits it affords.

Try working, applying for jobs, accessing government services in a timely manner, looking up directions or basic information, accessing emergency services in remote areas or coordinating your life in today’s world without a cell phone or Internet access. And we’re not just talking coordinating tea with your friends; we are talking coordinating who will pick up your kids from school if you are suddenly called into work or if a snowstorm hits. Without affordable access to telecom services, the barrier of difficulty for all these essential activities increases exponentially.

With the average 2GB cell plan cost in BC (about $85) being the approximate equivalent of a day’s work at minimum wage ($11.35/hour) – not counting overage fees and the cost of other services like call display or voicemail – the sky-high prices for cell phone and Internet services that Big Telecom offer are unacceptable if we are truly committed to ensuring no one in Canada is left behind. The scenario looks a lot more grim if we take into account that most family households have more than one mobile phone.

What to do? At OpenMedia, we are running two campaigns that tackle this issue head on. The first one concerns Internet infrastructure as a whole: our campaign for a National Broadband Strategy urges Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly and Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains to “implement a properly-funded national broadband strategy that includes lowering costs and increasing choice by structurally separating our networks from Big Telecom’s grip.”

The second campaign tackles cell phone prices directly, where we ask Big Telecom to make their December offer permanent, not just a weekend extravaganza.

Speaking up en masse is incredibly powerful; at the end of 2016, the government declared Internet to be a basic service, largely due to nearly 50,000 Canadians who raised their voices.

There’s no doubt that, together, we can help lower the economic barrier of access to telecom services and continue to work on making the digital divide a thing of the past.

For the latest updates, visit openmedia.org or follow us on Facebook and Twitter @OpenMediaOrg

Marianela Ramos Capelo is a graphic designer and part of the communications team at OpenMedia, a community-based organization that works to keep the Internet open, affordable and surveillance-free. openmedia.org

Copyright in the new TPP: A milestone or a PR move?

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INDEPENDENT MEDIA
by Marie Aspiazu

In early November, citizens watched in suspense as leaders from 11 of the original Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) signatories met in Vietnam at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit. They were there to discuss the future of the controversial trade agreement without the US, which withdrew from the agreement back in January.At first, reports indicated the Canadian Prime Minister didn’t show up, delaying the process. Moments later, it was confirmed the 11 nations had reached an “agreement in principle” on “core elements” of the TPP, now relabelled as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

The news dismayed hundreds of thousands of Canadians who had spoken out against the politically toxic deal for years. This was a clear sign that, once again, the government had ignored the feedback of Canadians before making a major decision, merely using the consultation as a public relations strategy.

However, in a win for digital rights advocates, the Canadian government took a strong stance on the Intellectual Property (IP) chapter, despite strong pressure from other nations to rush the deal through. While it significantly improved the TPP’s original unbalanced copyright rules by suspending the Intellectual Property provision almost in its entirety, the suspended chapters in the new agreement are still subject to discussion and could be reopened, should the US decide to rejoin the deal down the line.

Additionally, as Electronic Frontier Foundation points out, other problematic provisions for Internet users are still pulsating in the deal, like ISDS (Investor-State Dispute Settlement), a provision that allows multinational corporations to sue governments for millions of dollars for laws that simply don’t fit their business interests in unaccountable tribunals.

So it’s still too early for Internet users to throw confetti; the fight isn’t over yet. And despite a significant improvement to the original agreement, this whole process still happened behind closed doors. We cannot let this become the norm for how Canada negotiates future trade agreements and builds its relationships with other nations. If the government is truly committed to “progressive” trade, as they claim, they must embrace open, transparent and democratic processes throughout the entirety of the negotiations.

It will also be interesting to see if the Canadian government takes a similar approach in the renegotiated NAFTA. Hopefully, Canada will show leadership in achieving a balanced copyright approach in the face of extreme proposals by US industry lobbyists and even Canada’s own largest telecom, Bell. The company has proposed to introduce a website blocking system and radical new copyright rules that would criminalize everyday, online activities, resulting in an unprecedented, widespread chilling of free expression.

OpenMedia, Leadnow, Private Internet Access, United Steel Workers, CUPE and CWA Canada are teaming up to do a massive bus ad campaign in Ottawa to remind Prime Minister Trudeau we will not be silenced on the TPP. Citizens can contribute to the initiative at act.openmedia.org/trudeauTPP/donate and follow OpenMedia on Facebook and Twitter for the latest updates.

Marie Aspiazu is a campaigner and social media specialist for OpenMedia, a community-based organization that works to keep the Internet open, affordable and surveillance-free. openmedia.org

Interest groups, corporations and NAFTA

INDEPENDENT MEDIA
by Marianela Ramos Capelo

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is being renegotiated with little to no transparency at the expense of those who will feel its effects the most: everyday citizens. Interest groups and corporations are “fishing in troubled waters,” scrambling to take advantage of this opacity to shape the agreement to their benefit. Here are some ways in which everyday Canadians would feel the effects of this closed-doors, renegotiated NAFTA. It doesn’t look pretty.

1 – Your access to affordable medicine would be endangered

While it is copyright that usually keeps us occupied at OpenMedia, the draconian expanse of intellectual property policies affects other aspects of our lives, too. The cost of medicine is one of the clearest examples of the impacts of outdated patent and intellectual property policies. Pharmaceutical corporations are given a period of time in which they have the exclusive rights to sell the product they developed. During this time, they can make up for the cost of the expensive processes of research and development of their product. After that period expires, the patented formula is released for other laboratories to produce and release medicines, usually at a lower price. In a nutshell, this is how we get the more affordable “generic” or “non-brand” versions of drugs.

NAFTA is threatening this process. Big Pharma is seeking to expand the periods of exclusive rights to sell medications. These legal monopolies have made the headlines for their nefarious price-gouging practices in the States and there is no doubt big corporations will try to expand these practices into Canada. In other words, your access to affordable medication in Canada could disappear or be drastically reduced under NAFTA.

2 – Canada’s Internet would be subject to extrajudicial blocking systems

The Internet as we know it in Canada is under threat. This sounds alarming, but it is not a far-fetched argument. Bell Canada has openly stated it wants to introduce extrajudicial website blocking systems into the policies being discussed at the NAFTA renegotiations.

What does this mean for the average Canadian? Bell has suggested the creation of a “blacklist” of websites and a third-party body to monitor the blocking of blacklisted sites without due process. Bell takes it a step further by requesting these blocking systems be accompanied by criminal provisions, which might capture people who engage in legal, fair and normal use.

Imagine being sent to court for exercising your right to free speech? If this seems excessive to you, Canadians can speak out at act.openmedia.org/bellNAFTA to stop this reckless proposal.

These are only two ways in which corporations, interest groups and even countries are taking advantage of the lack of transparency surrounding NAFTA to bend the rules in their favour.

Learn more and take action at openmedia.org/freetradefreeinternet

Follow www.openmedia.org, www.facebook.com/openmediaorg and www.twitter.com/openmediaorg to stay up to date in the fight to keep the Internet safe from predatory trade agreements.

Marianela Ramos Capelo is a graphic designer and part of the communications team at OpenMedia, a community based organization that works to keep the Internet open, affordable, and surveillance free. openmedia.org

Digital issues at the top of MPs’ agenda

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INDEPENDENT MEDIA
by David Christopher

Now that Parliament is back at work after its long summer break, Canadians will be watching expectantly as MPs get to grips with a packed agenda of pressing digital rights issues this fall.

Top of mind for many Canadians will be the government’s proposed reforms to Bill C-51, the controversial and unpopular spying legislation forced through Parliament with scant debate by Stephen Harper’s government.

These reforms were set out as Bill C-59 in June by Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould. As my colleague Marie Aspiazu observed in last month’s column, parts of Bill C-59 represent a positive step forward when it comes to privacy, especially in the long neglected area of surveillance oversight.

However, the government’s proposals also leave very important gaps. For example, they completely fail to address Bill C-51’s information sharing provisions, which turn the personal information Canadians hand to the government in the course of their everyday lives into an open-ended surveillance dragnet. A group of over 40 organizations and privacy experts (ccla.org)

have also warned the reforms threaten to legitimize mass surveillance and data-mining activities by Canadian spy agencies.

While some progress has been made, a ton of work remains to be done to fix the significant remaining problems with Bill C-59. Goodale has promised these reforms will be thoroughly reviewed at committee stage in Parliament; MPs, especially those sitting on the parliamentary committees tasked with studying the bill, will continue to hear an earful from Canadians seeking to finally turn the page on the poisonous legacy of Harper’s Bill C-51.

Surveillance reforms are far from being the only major digital item on MPs’ to-do list. NAFTA talks are stepping up amidst well-founded concerns that the renegotiated deal threatens to replicate the worst aspects of the failed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Readers may recall how the TPP’s draconian copyright rules would have greatly restricted how Canadians share and work together online while also costing our economy millions. There’s no doubt the powerful media conglomerates pushing extreme copyright proposals will pull out all the stops to achieve with NAFTA what they failed to do with the TPP. To stop them, we’ll need to ensure that MPs hear loud and clear from Canadians that NAFTA must not be allowed to threaten innovation or restrict our access to information and content.

The fall session is also likely to see the publication of the government’s proposals on the future of Canadian content in a digital age. We’ll be watching closely to ensure these don’t undermine net neutrality or force low-income Canadians offline through the imposition of a Netflix Tax, an Internet Tax or similar, unfair fees. And we’ll need to keep up the pressure on the government to finally come up with the new investment required to create a national broadband strategy that ensures all Canadians, no matter their income level or place of residence, benefit from affordable, high-speed Internet.

David Christopher is interim communications and campaigns director for OpenMedia, a community-based organization that works to keep the Internet open, affordable and surveillance-free. openmedia.org

Bill C-59 will help safeguard privacy

But more needs to be done

photo of Marie Aspiazu

INDEPENDENT MEDIA
by Marie Aspiazu

After over two years, the federal government finally delivered on a long overdue promise: namely, the reforms to the draconian Harper-era gem, Bill C-51. These proposals, set out in the National Security Act 2017, or Bill C-59, were published after a tireless, nationwide movement calling for the full repeal of Bill C-51 and a lengthy national security consultation that began last fall. fall.

Amongst the top reforms called for in Bill C-51 were stronger oversight and accountability measures, rolling back expanded powers for the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) to conduct police activities, repealing provisions for broad information sharing between government agencies and rejecting mandatory data retention laws for telecom companies.

But did Bill C-59 go far enough to address the top privacy concerns of Canadians and tackle the many other deeply troubling aspects of C-51? Or is it just a half-baked measure by a federal government seeking to claim it did its part while leaving some of the worst pieces of C-51 lurking beneath the surface? The answer lies somewhere in between.

Bill C-59 is undoubtedly a positive step toward safeguarding the privacy of Canadians, as it includes encouraging reforms such as a new pan-government review body for our spy agencies and a much narrower definition of “terrorist propaganda,” so that this term no longer encompasses activities like peaceful protest and artistic expression.

However, it falls short of addressing some of the most serious concerns associated with Bill C-51, namely information sharing and police powers for CSIS. This is particularly disappointing, given the national security consultation revealed Canadians have significant concerns related to the sharing of sensitive data with foreign governments. Furthermore, broad powers for CSIS to collect and retain “publicly available” datasets went woefully unaddressed.

There was also no mention of measures to protect Canadians from invasive mass surveillance devices like Stingrays or proactive measures to protect encrypted communications, which have become essential for many of us in our everyday lives and critical to our digital and economic security.

Overall, the reform leaves worrying gaps that indicate the new legislation fails to give Canadians the privacy standards they’ve been asking for in an era where privacy is under constant threat by both government agencies and powerful corporations.

More importantly, despite C-59 making some progress on privacy, it remains clear Canadians are still hungry for a full repeal of C-51 and won’t be satisfied with half-measures. What is certain is that C-59 will have to be substantially improved to give Canadians the robust privacy protections they deserve. And there is an opportunity for this to happen through amendments as the bill goes to committee in the fall.

There’s no doubt this will be near the top of MPs’ to-do list when Parliament returns. Use OpenMedia’s online tool to message your MP with a simple click at act.openmedia.org/ProtectPrivacyC51 and ask them to fill in the current gaps and strengthen our privacy protections.

If we flood our MPs’ inboxes before they resume Parliament in the fall, they will not be able to turn a blind eye to our pressing concerns on C-51. Canadians can speak out at act.openmedia.org/ProtectPrivacyC51

Marie Aspiazu is the social media specialist at openmedia.org

NAFTA change could limit digital freedom

photo of David Christopher

INDEPENDENT MEDIA
by David Christopher

We’re just over four months into Donald Trump’s presidency and there’s already a great deal of concern around his digital agenda. On privacy, Trump’s Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly has overseen a sharp spike in invasive digital devices searches at the border and is even threatening to force travellers to routinely hand over social media passwords.

Meanwhile, Ajit Pai, head of the Federal Communications Commission, is aiming to overturn critical consumer safeguards, namely Net Neutrality, that hundreds of millions of Internet users depend on.

And if that isn’t enough to keep you up at night, a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) now looks imminent. First implemented in 1994, this trade deal is huge for Canada and the wrangling over whether, and how, it should be updated is sure to dominate headlines.

From a digital rights perspective, a number of big concerns come along with a renegotiation of NAFTA. Canadians enjoy significantly stronger protections for privacy and Net Neutrality than their US counterparts, policies that could be placed at risk in the upcoming talks. We also enjoy a more flexible copyright system than our neighbours.

Recent US legislation dramatically weakened rules governing the privacy of Internet users, enabling ISPs to track and sell their subscribers’ information, including their browsing history. In Canada, we have much stronger rules to prevent such abuses. Professor Michael Geist has warned the US is likely to use the NAFTA talks to force Canada to match its approach.

Canada also has some of the strongest pro-consumer Net Neutrality safeguards in the world, recently reinforced by the CRTC’s landmark decision to ban telecom providers from engaging in discriminatory pricing practices. In contrast, the US, under Trump, is moving to rapidly dismantle its own Net Neutrality safeguards; again, the concern is that they’ll use NAFTA to force Canada in line with an agenda that prioritizes the narrow interests of US telecom giants over the broader interests of Canadian consumers.

Perhaps most troublingly, the US looks all-but-certain to use NAFTA to try to impose draconian new intellectual property rules on Canada. In fact, as professor Geist notes, the US’ starting position for NAFTA looks very similar to their stance on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This is especially worrying given the TPP proposed extending Canada’s copyright terms by 20 years, robbing our public domain and costing our economy hundreds of millions.

With so many fundamental issues on the table, it’s fair to say Canada’s overall ability to chart its own digital policy direction is now at stake. Over recent years, Canada’s digital direction has diverged significantly from that of the US and this divergence has unequivocally benefitted Canadian Internet users.

That’s why it’s essential Canada’s negotiating team not only push back against US demands on the specific policy areas outlined above, but also that it make clear Canada will continue to shape a digital policy agenda that works for Canadians and not allow itself to be forced into line with America’s anti-consumer approach.

At OpenMedia, we’re watching developments closely. You can stay in the loop at OpenMedia.org

David Christopher is Interim Communications and Campaigns Director for OpenMedia, a non-profit organization that works to keep the Internet open, affordable and surveillance-free. openmedia.org

RCMP admits to cellphone spying

photo of David Christopher

INDEPENDENT MEDIA
by David Christopher

Finally. After years of obfuscation, the RCMP has admitted they are using invasive surveillance devices known as IMSI-catchers or Stingrays to spy on Canadians’ cell phones. The admission came early last month, seemingly prompted by revelations from CBC News that Stingray devices had been in use in downtown Ottawa and at the international airport in Montreal.

In those instances, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale issued a strong denial that Canadian agencies, such as the RCMP or CSIS, were involved, but the controversy brought a great deal of public attention to the RCMP’s own use of Stingray devices.

Stingrays are deeply problematic for a number of reasons. About the size of a small suitcase, they operate by mimicking a wireless tower, tricking all cell phones within a radius of up to two kilometres into switching their connection to the Stingray. Once that connection is made, instead of targeting just a single device, Stingrays indiscriminately vacuum up sensitive personal information from all devices within range, essentially making them a tool of mass surveillance.

There’s no need to be a target of a police investigation to have your private information compromised; you just need to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And when you consider just how many cell phones are located within a two-kilometre radius of, say, a downtown Toronto intersection, that gives some indication of just how many Canadians have likely been impacted.

Secondly, Stingrays are capable of collecting information on everything from your location to details of every call, email and text you make. They can even listen in on and record the content of cell phone calls. Nor should we be reassured by the RCMP saying they only use Stingrays to collect location and device identification metadata. As Brenda McPhail of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association points out, “Metadata includes location information. That is intimately personal. The fact that they only collect metadata doesn’t let them off the hook.”

For those of us working in the field of digital privacy, the RCMP’s belated admission did not exactly come as a surprise. It will, however, hopefully prompt the informed democratic debate Canadians deserve about whether the use of these surveillance devices can ever be justified and, if so, what safeguards are necessary to protect the public’s privacy?

Unfortunately, the RCMP left many important questions unanswered. Why not tell us how many innocent Canadians have had their private information compromised over the past 10 years? Or let us know whether Stingrays have ever been used to monitor a political protest? And why did the RCMP wait until just a few weeks ago before applying for permission from Innovation, Science, and Economic Development Canada to use the devices?

Last, but far from least, the fact that the use of Stingrays can apparently be authorized based merely on suspicion of wrongdoing is hugely worrying. Surely, a much higher standard of evidence should be required, given the serious privacy implications for the general public?

It’s clear we deserve answers to all these questions from Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale. Canadians should keep up the pressure on the government by supporting our 48,000-strong campaign at StopStingrays.org

David Christopher is communications manager for OpenMedia, a community-based organization that works to keep the Internet open, affordable and surveillance-free. openmedia.org

Trans-Pacific Partnership mistakes never to be repeated

photo of David Christopher

INDEPENDENT MEDIA
by Meghan Sali

By now, most of you have heard of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a sweeping international agreement brokered between 12 nations across the Pacific region, including Canada and the US.

Although often referred to as a trade deal, in reality, the TPP would have had profound impacts on the lives of the nearly 800 million citizens of the TPP nations, well beyond that which is traditionally within the scope of trade. It would affect digital rights, the environment, labour rights, health care, public services, even undermining the accountability of our democratic institutions by allowing corporations to sue Canada in secretive tribunals.

The TPP was negotiated in near-total secrecy; powerful corporations were given a privileged seat at the table while citizens and public interest groups were excluded from the talks.

At OpenMedia, our work on the TPP constitutes the single, longest-sustained campaign in our history. We have been deeply concerned about how the TPP’s copyright and intellectual property provisions would dramatically change how citizens use the Internet, criminalizing online activities, invading our privacy and costing our digital economy millions.

That’s why it was good news when public pressure pushed both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump into pledging to reject the TPP in the run-up to last year’s US presidential election. The subsequent withdrawal of the US from the TPP has effectively put the deal on its deathbed, although remaining TPP nations are in discussions about resurrecting it in an alternative format.

What does this mean for Canada? Why did the TPP prove to be so unpopular among the Canadian public? And what needs to be done to restore public trust in future trade processes?

High-profile trade negotiations are due to take place in the coming months: on NAFTA, with China, the UK and Pacific nations. Thankfully, Canadians have the answers.

Our recently-published Let’s Talk TPP Citizens’ Report, shaped by input from nearly 28,000 individuals who submitted feedback to the official TPP consultations, sheds light on why so many Canadians opposed the TPP and outlines what needs to be done to restore public trust in trade processes.

The most common reason given for opposing the TPP was simply that Canadians weren’t consulted. Stephen Harper’s government conducted negotiations that excluded the public entirely. The Trudeau government, on the other hand, launched a consultation process, but by then the deal had already been signed, with the result that Canadians were effectively being asked to take it or leave it.

Our report’s findings were clear: Canadians want the federal government to formally withdraw from the TPP and to ensure much greater transparency and genuine public engagement in future trade deals. Canadians’ desire for active citizen engagement to ensure the final product of any future trade negotiation reflects the broad needs of the public, rather than the narrow desires of powerful corporations.

Put simply, Canadians cannot support trade deals made in secret. And, with so many crucial negotiations close on the horizon, that’s a lesson the federal government needs to take to heart.

Read our report at LetsTalkTPP.ca/report and help by sending it to your local MP using our tool at LetsTalkTPP.ca

Meghan Sali is communications specialist for OpenMedia, a community-based organization that works to keep the Internet open, affordable and surveillance-free. openmedia.org

Internet surveillance

Is your data ending up in NSA’s hands?

photo of David Christopher

INDEPENDENT MEDIA
by David Christopher

How many websites have you visited today? How many emails have you sent? How many times have you logged onto Facebook? How often have you used services like Slack or Skype?

If you’re anything like me, you probably won’t be able to answer these questions. Even as I write this piece, I have 16 tabs open in my browser, I’m logged into Facebook and my office’s instant messaging service is chirping away.

The Internet has become such an interwoven part of my daily routine that it’s impossible to keep track of how many websites I visit or emails I send. One of the best things about the Internet is that ‘it just works.’ Few of us give any thought to what’s actually happening to our data when we hit ‘send,’ click on a link or tap ‘reply’ to an instant message.

Unfortunately, what’s actually happening to our data on its journey around the Internet has deeply concerning privacy implications. Over the years, spy agencies such as the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) have built incredibly powerful surveillance systems capable of collecting vast quantities of our private communications data, including emails, video and voice chats, photos, videos, stored data and social networking details, and analyzing it for anything supposedly ‘suspicious.’

Although we like to think of the Internet as a ‘cloud,’ most of it relies on Internet Exchanges – buildings that connect the most important Internet cables together. Although these Internet Exchanges ensure our data reliably makes it from point A to point B, their physical nature makes us far more vulnerable to surveillance.

The NSA has taken advantage of this by installing listening posts, or ‘splitter rooms,’ in key US cities where Internet Exchanges are located. When your data travels through one of these Internet Exchanges, it is almost certainly subject to being intercepted by the NSA and stored at the main NSA Data Center in Utah. Once outside Canada, your data is treated by the NSA as foreign and loses Canadian legal and constitutional protections, representing a major loss of privacy.

Even more worrying is this surveillance is not restricted to when you visit a US website or send an email to someone south of the border. A team of experts at the University of Toronto and York University, led by Professor Andrew Clement, have been researching this extensively as part of the IXmaps project. They’ve concluded that at least 25 percent of domestic Canada-to-Canada data travels via the US where it is subject to NSA surveillance.

This phenomenon is known as “boomerang routing.” For example, an email sent from Vancouver to Toronto may ‘boomerang’ via Chicago. Even an email sent from one part of Vancouver to another may travel via the US, largely as a result of years of monopolistic practices by major Canadian telecoms, poor regulatory oversight and underinvestment in Canada’s Internet infrastructure.

At OpenMedia, we’ve worked with IXmaps researchers on a new educational platform to raise awareness of these issues in a project made possible by the financial support of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (www.priv.gc.ca/en/)

Our platform includes an informational video, a series of infographics, a detailed FAQ and some pointers to tools to better safeguard your privacy online. See openmedia.org/en/IXmaps

David Christopher is communications manager for OpenMedia, which works to keep the Internet open, affordable and surveillance-free. openmedia.org