Canada’s new national security bill: one step forward, two steps back?

Over the last year, the Canadian government has been engaged in extensive public consultations meant to address widespread concerns around C-51 (the anti-terror law implemented by Prime Minister Harper’s government) as well as a range of other national security practices, policies, and oversight and public accountability issues raised by Canadians.  (I participated in some of these consultations and found them to be informative and useful, for the most part).

The outcome of those consultations is a new proposed national security legislation, Bill C-59.  Bill C-59 is arguably the most comprehensive reform of Canada’s national security laws in decades.   While it contains a lot that is positive — particularly in the area of some new forms of oversight and accountability — there is also quite a bit in Bill C-59 that I and many others have found troubling.

Today, a letter is being released, signed by over 40 individuals and organizations, that publicly raises issues with Bill C-59.  Some of my colleagues and I at Citizen Lab — who together are part of an internal working group on signals intelligence — are among the signatories.

To accompany the joint public letter, we have also written a blog post that fleshes out in more detail some of our concerns.   You can read that letter here:

Generally speaking, it is exceedingly difficult for members of the public to hold national security organizations to account.  National security agencies operate in the shadows, and are governed by what can be, at times, confusing and opaque laws, methods, and practices.  Unless you’re a specialist or an insider, it can be frustratingly difficult to know just what is going on that might warrant a citizen’s concern.  In an age when we are effectively turning our digital lives inside out on the one hand, while entrusting to some of these agencies enormous resources, capabilities, and responsibilities on the other, this gap in understanding is a major problem for liberal democracy.

Our internal working group on signals intelligence — myself, Christopher Parsons, Bill Robinson, and Lex Gill — aims to help rectify that confusion.  We are working on a series of outputs and public engagements, of which this is the first, which we hope helps better inform Canadians on these critical issues.