President's Commentary: Massive U.S. surveillance needs a response | National Union of Public and General Employees

President's Commentary: Massive U.S. surveillance needs a response

"Our democracies and our economies depend on our ability to communicate safely and securely with each other and it’s clear that, right now, we can do neither." - James Clancy, NUPGE National President.

Ottawa (12 July 2013) – It's been more than a month since the world learned that for years the U.S. government has been systematically intercepting and examining much of the world's internet communications as well as all of the phone conversations into and out of its borders.

These massive surveillance programs – which were kept secret until an American intelligence worker decided he had a duty to inform the public about them – represent a massive breach of Canadians' rights to personal and proprietary privacy as well as our rights to free expression, religion and association.

And yet there has been a shocking lack of public discussion and debate about how we should react to these revelations, both as individual citizens and as a nation. Our democracies and our economies depend on our ability to communicate safely and securely with each other and it’s clear that, right now, we can do neither.

Perhaps we're indifferent to these revelations because we didn't feel that email or phone conversations were secure in the first place. But I believe this indifference is incredibly dangerous: knowing that our conversations and personal information could be intercepted is far different from knowing that they are being intercepted and then systematically examined and analyzed by the most powerful democratic government in the world. This knowledge raises a host of profoundly troubling questions:

  • What is the U.S. using this information for and who are they sharing the information with?
  • What does it say about the state of the world's democracies and human rights when the government of the country so often lauded as the world's most free and successful democracy is in fact engaging in such authoritarian and invasive practices?
  • How sure can we be that our own governments aren't engaging in similarly authoritarian and invasive surveillance practices? When did our leaders learn about the American surveillance programs? Have our leaders provided any permission or support?
  • While many people accept the notion that this kind of surveillance is a legitimate tool to prevent terrorist attacks, how do we know it's not also being used to help American businesses compete against Canadian businesses?
  • Likewise, how do we know it's not being used to track and disrupt legitimate political dissent in the U.S., Canada, and abroad?

Just as disturbing as the scale of the U.S. government's electronic surveillance is the revelation that much of their information gathering and subsequent analysis has been contracted out to private corporations. History has shown time and again that the profit motive can lead to incredible violations of human rights, human dignity, and even human safety. Even if you trust U.S. government leaders and civil service employees to use the information they're gathering about you in order to prevent violence and terrorism, can you trust the private corporations with unfettered access to your information not to use it for their own profit-driven purposes?

Sadly, few of these questions are even being asked by the Canadian public and mass media. The coverage and debate has focused almost exclusively on Eric Snowden, the U.S. citizen who first revealed the surveillance programs. As I write this, it's believed Snowden is still trapped inside the Moscow airport while the U.S. government pursues him with frightening tenacity, and seemingly little regard for due process. Indeed, the U.S. government's treatment of the citizen who blew the whistle on the U.S. military's murder of civilians and journalists in Iraq – Bradley Manning – does not inspire confidence that Snowden will be treated fairly.

But even the Snowden angle of the story raises troubling questions for Canadians:

  • What affect will Snowden's pursuit and persecution have on Canadian citizens who know about governmental or corporate injustice?
  • And what has become of Canada's reputation as a haven from injustice? Many of us remain incredibly proud, for example, that we welcomed tens of thousands of Americans who were conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War. But when Snowden started seeking asylum, he sent official requests to more than 20 countries. He didn't even bother sending a request to us.

I've sent a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper about all this, asking that as leader of the federal government – which has ultimate authority over and responsibility for our national security – he begin to address this matter publicly. I urge you to do the same.

Our rights have been violated on a massive scale. A foreign government and private corporations have been caught conducting espionage against all of us. A working person who followed his conscience is being hunted by powerful and violent forces. These are matters of direct relevance to us all, and it is time we begin grappling with them together.

In solidarity,

James Clancy
National President


James Clancy is the National President of the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE), one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 340,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. NUPGE