Here’s something interesting to think about. This week, Britain’s Guardian newspaper — the leading media outlet revealing and explaining the inner workings of the U.S. National Security Agency’s (NSA) wide-ranging program to intercept email communications — has been looking at another facet of the program: the direct involvement of Britain’s security services. The Guardian was the first agency in Britain, picked by Eric Snowden, to publish the bombshell revelations about the NSA’s top secret electronic eavesdropping program — and the revelations have just kept coming. This week, it was the fact that the NSA paid a British intelligence service, the Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, more than 100 million British pounds over the last three years to “secure access to and influence over Britain’s intelligence gathering programs.” Why? The argument is that differences between British and American law was a selling point for having the British agency do work on the Americans’ behalf, work that has included tapping transatlantic cabling systems and advanced work on gathering personal information transmitted by mobile phones and apps: one leaked document describes GCHQ’s goal as to be able to “exploit any phone, anywhere, any time.” Another document argues that the GCHQ wants to ensure that it has “exploited to the full our unique selling points of geography, partnerships (and) the U.K.’s legal regime.” So, what makes all of that interesting in this country, besides the breathtaking abuse of people’s rights by a neighbouring nation that so often boasts of the strength of its rights? Well, perhaps that our own intelligence services have also been tagged by Eric Snowden as providing services to American interests — in particular, by intercepting instant messages at a 2009 G20 summit. This country’s intelligence agencies are also involved in a relatively secretive intelligence-sharing agreement called the “Five Eyes” agreement, which includes Canada’s Communications Security Establishment, electronic eavesdropping agencies in Australia and New Zealand, and, surprise, surprise, both the NSA and the GCHQ. The whole exercise raises questions about just how far our country is willing to compromise the rights and protections of its citizens, on the one hand to stay on the good side of a close neighbour, and on the other, to attempt in some small way to address fears of terrorism. Because that is what all this electronic bugging is supposedly about: protecting U.S. citizens from terrorism. In June, the NSA’s director, Gen. Keith Alexander, testified that “over 50” terrorist attacks had been thwarted by the large-scale abridgement of the rights of Americans and non-Americans. It’s an argument he has repeated as recently as Wednesday — the same day another NSA official testified before a U.S. Senate panel that the intercept program had been central to one — just one — terrorist investigation. This is, of course, the same Gen. Alexander that testified before a congressional committee — long before Eric Snowden’s public appearance — that his agency was doing no intercepts whatsoever. It’s a slippery slope when we surrender our rights to meet a government’s goals — when the means are justified by secretive ends — and as Canadians, there’s a clear risk we’re now part of the slide.
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