Stream One: Security

Stream Leaders:

David Lyon, Stéphane Leman-Langlois and David Murakami Wood

Jessica lives in Scarborough, east of Toronto’s downtown. A former room-mate texted, asking her to be a volunteer usher at the Toronto Palestine Film Festival, the week before she was to take a long-awaited vacation. She couldn't do it. But she was detained at Pearson airport, just long enough to miss the flight and the only bus that week to her remote resort. She discovered to her chagrin that her complex family history had thwarted her travel plans. Her father was a Jew but her name, Cohen, is also found among Palestinians. What to her were random facts, were to the airport security system, connectable big data ‘dots.’

This stream examines the scope and impact of big data-dependent ‘national security’ surveillance of communications in the wake of Snowden’s revelations. The NSA, and Canada’s Communications Security Establishment (CSEC), intercept and store millions of emails, and other messages, evidence of a shift to a big data approach. Documents and details disclosed to the media by Snowden indicate not only the scope but also the national and international range and complexity of big data practices, in which marketing and security surveillance operate in tandem. Our research examines this global trend, especially as seen in the programs, activities and public documents of CSEC, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). What are the consequences of the shift from causation to correlation and for privacy and data protection regimes that are sidelined by this approach? How can surveillance be made transparent and public debate facilitated ? What new policy-directions are required?

We aim to identify and examine key features of big data surveillance in relation to the information gleaned from, and debates concerning, the ongoing scrutiny being brought to national security agencies around the world triggered after the material provided by Snowden, from 2013. These ‘key features’ are:

1.    Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) and Social Media: the rapid evolution since 2005, becoming a central platform for surveillance. We examine through interviews what social media users know of OSINT and how they respond to its presence (Bigo 2014).
2.    Geographies of security-surveillance: cables, clouds, data centres: We examine through documentary and media research the implications for international relations of physical communication conduits that are accessible to intelligence agencies (Obar and Clement 2013).
3.    Computability, codes and algorithms: We investigate comparatively what the shift to data analytics in security-surveillance shows about general big data surveillance.
4.    Travelling technocrats (Larner and Laurie 2010): We trace how international professional security groups, in public-private partnerships, influence policy and profits.

Each key features relates to issues raised by our policy partners, such as how big data practices exploit loopholes in current privacy laws, how ‘security’ is mobilized as a permanent rationale for increased surveillance and how new channels of power and influence disproportionately disadvantage certain population groups (Dwork and Mulligan 2013, Raley 2013). These key features will be investigated in relation to (a) the so-called ‘Five Eyes’ (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the USA) plus Germany and Brazil, to compare and contrast experiences in Canada, and (b) surveillance trends identified in Transparent Lives (2014), such as the blurring between public and private agencies and changing conceptions of personal data (now including metadata).

Research Methods: This is an area in which it is notoriously difficult to obtain accurate information, given the secrecy surrounding both public and private agencies. However, through a snowballing process of utilizing investigative journalism, interviewing technical experts and former security and intelligence workers and by using Freedom of Information requests and publicly available government data, we shall triangulate available information in relation to appropriate theory to create meaningful and accessible findings.

The research will have a direct bearing on the work of our policy and advocacy partners as it will help to identify key areas of long-term concern, such as the shift from causation to correlation and the regulation of database practices.

Research Workshop:

Security Intelligence and Surveillance in the Big Data Age, Ottawa, October 2017

Workshop Summary


Project Partners