Archive for the ‘Canada’ Category

The longest-lived and most important international intelligence cooperation treaty is the UKUSA COMINT Agreement. Signed just after the Second World War, this agreement created a wide-open sharing arrangement between Britain and the United States, with secondary membership provided to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, in the area of signals intelligence. The National Security Agency (U.S.) is unquestionably the senior partner, but it and the Government Communications Headquarters (UK), Communications Security Establishment (Canada), Defence Signals Directorate (Australia), and Government Communications Security Bureau (New Zealand) basically grew up together.

What I didn’t expect, last year, was the decision by the British and American governments to finally open up the text of this agreement (mostly).

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In one episode of the old conspiracy series The X-Files, Mulder and Scully stumble across a vast collection of DNA samples in an old mining building. Mulder surmises that the government has collected a sample from every single American citizen born since the 1940s, using the smallpox vaccinations as cover. It’s fine conspiracy fare but something too massive to ever happen in real life. Unless, of course, you happen to have been born in British Columbia, Canada, in the past 20 years.

It emerged in 2010, as part of a new class action lawsuit, that the government of British Columbia takes samples from every newborn in the province (800,000 and counting, so far), without the parents’ consent, telling them as cover that the blood is being routinely tested for evidence of hereditary disorders. That’s what’s behind the innocuous name of the so-called “Newborn Screening Program.”

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It’s a weird last straw, I suppose, but this article has been enough to revive my interest in freedom of information, enough to start writing about it instead of just griping in the comfort of my own home. I’m curious to see how long this blog lasts. Think of it as an experiment in electronic freedom. More philosophy later, though.

Although my main focus is intended to be international, and therefore is inevitably going to gravitate towards the United States, I can’t ignore my own backyard. In Canada, our freedom of information rights are governed by a piece of legislation called the Access to Information Act. This Act, in a word, sucks. The Globe & Mail recently covered some of the problems on the implementation side, though in my opinion the basic principles are fundamentally flawed:

In the past decade, the percentage of cases in which Ottawa discloses all the information requested has dropped to about 16 per cent from 40. In the past eight years, the percentage of cases in which federal officials complete requests within 30 days is down to 56 per cent from nearly 70.

The article quotes Michel Drapeau, at the University of Ottawa, referring to the system as a “bureaucrat’s dream.” This is only half true — and that half is largely confined to the senior ranks, who have as much of an interest in secrecy as the government they serve. In my experience, the lower levels actually regard their obligations under the ATI as unbearably tedious drudgery.

They can be forgiven for overlooking the fact that the government — and by extension, the “public” servant — is supposed to serve the people. The bottom line is that our governments are not interested in providing the funding or human resources necessary to meet what they are legally required to even by the menial standards of today’s ATI. Despite all the stereotypes about lazy bureaucrats, most of the fault here lies with the ministers’ offices, not with the civil servants.