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Glenn Greenwald and the Surveillance State

Last week Glenn Greenwald, the American journalist who worked with Edward Snowden to unveil his revelations of the NSA’s mass surveillance, was in Montreal. He spoke at McGill University on Thursday and Concordia on Friday night, and your correspondent was lucky enough to be present at the latter of the talks. After thanking McGill and Concordia for bringing him to Canada, Greenwald spoke about his work, government surveillance programs, freedom of the press, internet privacy, as well as providing his insight into last week’s violent attacks in Ottawa.

Arriving in Canada only just before last week’s tragic shooting of a soldier in Ottawa and the scare on Parliament Hill, Greenwald got to work writing a piece for his new publication, The Intercept, about how Canada should not be shocked that they were subject to a terrorist attack after over a decade of war in the Middle East. During the beginning of his talk, Greenwald addressed his critics, including many Canadians who felt his article was “too soon” after the attack in Ottawa. Greenwald dubbed this the “too soon fallacy”, and suggested that if Prime Minister Harper is allowed to politicize the events later that same day, then he too must be allowed to criticize the government and their use of a tragedy for their own gains. Greenwald pointed out that one of the first things Stephen Harper spoke about last Wednesday was the need for increased security and counter-intelligence measures. Rallying around the flag in times of tragedy is not uncommon for politicians, but over the past several decades has led to dramatic increases in the surveillance state and has grossly threatened privacy rights and other such civil liberties.

Within Canada, responses to the attack in Ottawa and PM Harper’s reaction have been mixed. Opposition leader Thomas Mulcair has since stated that he does not view the Ottawa shooting as a terrorist act, whereas Justin Trudeau has been supportive of phrasing it as such due to an RCMP report on the shooting. Greenwald has warned Canadian to be wary, and that the government will likely use this as justification for unprecedented increases in surveillance, including on Canadian citizens. He suggested that the attacks were a prime example of how Western governments have “been able to shape and manipulate their citizenries in the name of terrorism” in such a way that puts at risk the fundamental principles of our democracy. This includes crackdowns on the press and their sources (see: Eric Holder), as well as a sharp decline in internet privacy in the digital age. Furthermore, Greenwald spoke about the foreign policy implications, and the status of innocence the Canadian government, along with many other western governments, has proliferated. The idea that Canada is a victim of terror attacks but not the proliferators of violence has been a popular way to view attacks of the kind that occurred in Ottawa last week, but disregards Western foreign policy in the Middle East for the past several years. Greenwald noted how much coverage we have seen about the victims of the Quebec and Ottawa attacks, but that to Canadians the thousands who have died at the hands of coalition military action in the region over the past decade remain invisible.

Glenn Greenwald has done extensive research into the ‘Five Eyes’ program, a combination of surveillance bureaus from the United States, Canada, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. Last week he spoke of the many classified documents he had about this program and the degree to which these countries have been spying on their own citizens almost without bounds. When Edward Snowden, working with Greenwald and other journalists, leaked key information about the NSA’s spying programs it unveiled a network of surveillance grander than almost anyone could have thought possible. Early revelations included the PRISM program, which allowed the NSA access to American’s Yahoo and Google accounts, and details of the NSA’s secret court orders which forced Verizon to hand over millions of Americans daily phone records. During his talk at Concordia, Greenwald took time to mention Canada’s role in all of this, criticizing CSEC – Canada’s secretive security establishment comparable to the NSA. Despite most Canadians knowing next to nothing about CSEC (Greenwald posits that until recently a majority of Canadians did not even know of its existence), the government recently approved the construction of new headquarters for the organization. To be built in suburban Ottawa, the new headquarters are estimated to cost almost $1.2 billion, making it the most expensive government building in Canadian history.

During the question period after the talk, Greenwald was asked about what individuals can do to change the current trajectory of Western governmental surveillance. He advocated the use of encrypted email accounts and increased consideration for choices we make as consumers, perhaps we should choose other services over Gmail or Facebook if such firms do not respect the privacy of their clients. He was also asked a question (by a self-prescribed libertarian) as to whether government can be the answer if they are currently accelerating and proliferating the problem. In his response, Greenwald pointed to all of the good that has come from government, and I myself see no viable alternative to democratic governance. However, like Greenwald I agree that there must be limits to a government’s power and a method of checks on that power. In conclusion, Glenn Greenwald’s talk at Concordia was broad in scope and both intellectual and entertaining in content. I would be surprised if any member of the audience left the hall without increased respect for Greenwald and passion for the protection of civil liberties.

Image License: Some rights reserved by Gage Skidmore

About Michael Swistara

Michael graduated from McGill University in 2015 with a double major in political science and economics, and currently attends Columbia University where he is pursuing a master's degree. As former Editor-in-Chief of the Political Bouillon, Michael continues to occasionally contribute articles on his favorite topics, including American politics, economic policy, and foreign affairs.

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