Can Surveillance Increase Public Safety?

Can Surveillance Increase Public Safety Blog Header
Can Surveillance Increase Public Safety Blog Header

Mass government surveillance has become a fact of modern life, though most citizens are unlikely to note how often each day their images are captured by cameras; their metadata tracked while browsing the web; and even their locations logged thanks to the GPS capability included in most smartphones. Public opinion has been sharply divided on the extent to which authorities should be allowed to monitor citizens who are not suspected of criminal activity; proponents point to the capability of mass surveillance techniques to prevent terrorism and other major crimes, while detractors consider these same techniques an infringement on individual liberties. Wilfrid Laurier University’s online Master of Public Safety and Public Safety Graduate Diplomas are dedicated to training Canada’s public safety leaders and ensuring they are equipped to handle these complex issues. Graduates will be well-prepared for these challenges, thanks to a curriculum developed in collaboration with Public Safety Canada.

What Preceded Canada’s Anti-Terrorism Act?
Did you know that the Anti-Terrorism Act followed the attacks of September 11, 2001? Its made-in-Canada solution to address terrorism amended several Acts including the Official Secrets Act, the Criminal Code, the Proceeds of Crime Act (Money Laundering) and the Canada Evidence Act.
Everybody has a question. Are you curious about how Wilfrid Laurier University’s Master of Public Safety degree helps graduates to become knowledgeable in strategies that strengthen Canada’s commitment to the safety of all Canadians? Get in touch with us today so we can answer your questions!

History of Mass Surveillance

The modern history of mass surveillance dates back to the 1940s, when wartime espionage technologies developed in Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union made it possible to monitor communications on an unprecedented scale. During the Second World War, interception and censoring of domestic communications was broadly approved of by the public as a means of hindering espionage, and establishing information superiority. However, these extreme wartime measures were not always discontinued after the Axis’ defeat. Under the leadership of the NSA, Project SHAMROCK secretly gathered every telegraph message entering or exiting the United States over a period of 35 years (1940-1975) until a Congressional investigation led to its abrupt discontinuation.[i]

During this time, mass surveillance techniques were used to monitor, and at times disrupt not only the communications of foreign embassies, but also organized crime[ii]; political organizations such as the Black Panthers;[iii] and even private citizens like actress Jean Seberg.[iv] Known as COINTELPRO, the FBI explained its goals as “protecting national security, preventing violence, and maintaining the existing social and political order.”[v] Early international pacts such as the UKUSA Agreement created frameworks for information-sharing between governments on each side of the Cold War divide—frameworks which continue to this day in the form of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance between the UK, USA, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Recent estimates place the number of CCTV cameras (both government & private industry) surveilling the greater London, UK area at 500,000. These cameras are considered part of daily life and greatly enhance public safety, as witnessed by their usage in recent terrorists attacks.

Surveillance and Anti-Terrorism in Canada

Canada’s signals intelligence (SIGINT) and cryptologic agency is the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSE), which like its British and American counterparts originated during World War II. CSE states that its mission is:

To provide and protect information of national interest, through leading-edge technology, in synergy with our Government of Canada partners in the security and intelligence community.

The Communications Security Establishment is mandated to acquire and provide foreign signals intelligence, and to provide advice, guidance and services to help ensure the protection of Government of Canada electronic information and information infrastructures. We also provide technical and operational assistance to federal law enforcement and security agencies.[vi]

Much of CSE’s initial work was devoted to maintaining public safety in Canada by countering Soviet espionage rings, like those exposed by intelligence officer Igor Gouzenko, who defected in the mid-40s and lived the rest of his life under police protection,[vii] and it would remain a primary focus through the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. (In fact, the very existence of the organization was kept secret from the public, and most of the House of Commons, until it was exposed by a CBC Fifth Estate investigation in 1974.[viii]) The organization would gain new relevance after the 9/11 attacks, when a greater awareness of the threat of terrorism, and the fact that some of the perpetrators had passed through the Canadian border on their way into the US, led to significantly increased responsibilities, and surveillance powers, for national defence and law enforcement.[ix]

Public Safety Canada, and its partners, coordinate information-sharing between police services, border services, and CSIS to counter incipient radicalization and potential threats.[xiii]

New Technology and Public Safety

In recent years, the nature of surveillance has changed considerably. Surveillance was once a process which required intention at every stage: a target had to be chosen, likely following preliminary investigation; permission granted by a judge to track them; an operative dispatched to keep an eye on them, or to install some means of tracking and recording. Now surveillance capability is latent in most consumer technology, meaning the choice to surveil and the initiation of surveillance are virtually one.

Responses to Public Scrutiny of Surveillance Operations

Security agencies continue to be reticent about exposing the scale of their surveillance operations to public scrutiny. There is no doubt that giving authorities greater surveillance tools helps to prevent certain kinds of crime, but there also is the possibility of abuses or that the rights of citizens could be compromised. There is no doubt that these tools must be used responsibly by future public safety leaders, and that they are ultimately accountable for how they are used to the very public they watch.

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Read Keeping Canada Prepared: Careers in Public Safety GIS & Data Analytics and Public Safety Canada and the Work of Keeping Canada Secure