Whistleblower Protection? NSA Reform – No Comment From Canada?

Posted by Shannon Walker

on January 24, 2014

editorial photo president obamaLast week, US President Barack Obama made a speech addressing the controversy surrounding the NSA’s surveillance tactics.  The president called for a limit to the NSA’s surveillance, saying that the program as it currently exists will be no more.

Watch his speech here:


Pressure brought on by Edward Snowden’s leaks of around 1.7 million NSA documents has forced the United States government to start a review of the agency’s actions, and Obama’s speech outlined the proposed changes to the NSA’s activities.  He stated that the NSA will no longer control individuals’ phone data, and will have to obtain court permission in order to access said data.  The agency has 60 days to decide what to do with the records it has already collected and stored.  There will also be consideration given to the use of email and internet records.

Obama also stated that the United States will no longer monitor the phone records of foreign leaders.  This comes on the heels of allegations (also part of Snowden’s leaks) that the US had been monitoring the phone of German chancellor Angela Merkel, leading to growing distrust among European nations.  As such, NSA reform is imperative not only to win back support from US citizens, but also to reestablish trust on an international level.  These changes will not take effect immediately, as several of them require emendations to the Patriot Act, which will have to be drafted, debated, and passed by Congress.

The president stressed that certain levels of surveillance are necessary in order to ensure national security, but admitted that the NSA’s unbridled collection of phone and email records was an infringement on civil liberties.  Obama was not, however, one hundred percent critical of the NSA, stating that intelligence agents had not purposely abused their power in order to spy on citizens.  The lingering support for the NSA as well as the continued vilification of Snowden suggest that the cultural shift that was hoped for may not have occurred, and detractors from tech companies and civil liberties groups have suggested that the changes do not go far enough.  However, the fact that Snowden’s leaks encouraged a full reassessment of surveillance tactics and steps towards significant change shows the power whistleblowers have to positively impact policy.

What is interesting is the lack of comment from Canada’s intelligence agencies.  In Snowden’s leaks, he mentions that questionable surveillance tactics were not only used by the NSA, but also its allies, which included CSIS and the CSE.  They were named as a part of an international ring of government agencies accused of spying on their citizens, both at home and abroad.  The CSE has admitted that it has ‘inadvertently’ spied on Canadians utilizing similar surveillance methods as the NSA.

The fact that there has been no response or move towards similar reform measures suggests that Canada is not taking steps towards transparency with its intelligence efforts.  CSIS and the CSE admitting that they have spied on Canadians without working to amend their practices is troubling.  The admission of spying is simply not enough transparency.  Regardless of whether the US has done enough in its efforts to fix the NSA, there has at least been attention payed to the issues.  If Canadians do not put pressure on the government to make the necessary changes to CSIS and the CSE, it seems unlikely that they will happen.  Whistleblowing paid dividends in the US, and it seems high time that it did here.    Instead of Canadian federal workers being gagged or fired for trying to come forward, Canada needs to put into place the protections that its workers deserve.

eBook: 5 Steps to Create a Whistleblower Culture