Is Mass Surveillance A Threat?

Is government mass surveillance a threat to our freedom?

Presenter: John Pope

June, 2013


Mass surveillance is the pervasive surveillance of an entire population, or a substantial fraction thereof.

Mass surveillance has been widely criticized on several grounds such as violations of privacy rights, illegality, and for preventing political and social freedoms, which some fear will ultimately lead to a totalitarian state where political dissent is crushed by COINTELPRO-like programs. Such a state may also be referred to as an Electronic Police State.


Intelligence gathering has been a tool of governments around the world for a very long time. Historically, governments justify this spying by saying it is for security purposes. By targeting ‘suspicious’ groups or individuals for secret surveillance, the state is thereby preventing crimes and subversion from happening.

One example is the COINTELPRO program in the USA between 1956 and 1971.

The US FBI spied on labour groups, political groups, religious groups and individuals linked to them. They bugged Martin Luther King’s phones, and even Albert Einstein was spied upon (because he belonged to a peace group).

This was justified and for the most part publicly accepted in the USA because it was designed to prevent the enemy (communists) from infiltrating society.

Recent Revelations

Although the program of “Total Information Awareness” was announced under G.W.Bush soon after the 9-11 attacks, not much fanfare was made of it in the mainstream media.

This program created enormous computer databases to gather and store the personal information of everyone in the United States, including personal e-mails, social networks, credit card records, phone calls, medical records, and numerous other sources, without any requirement for a search warrant.

This information would then be analyzed to look for suspicious activities, connections between individuals, and “threats”.

It took the individual actions by a few whistle blowers such as Bradley Manning, and Edward Snowden to expose the extent of today’s mass surveillance program – a US institution named PRISM since 2007. The US is soon to open a new massive intelligence gathering and storing facility in Utah.

US President Obama has publicly defended this program as vital for US security.

The Canadian Counterpart

Our Canadian spy agency, the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) is the Canadian counterpart, and is closely connected to the US National Security Agency (NSA), and was establish during the cold war. In 2005 Canadian Defense Minister Bill Graham signed a top-secret directive that explicitly allowed the CSEC collect “telecommunications trails” on Canadian which includes metadata (email records, phone records, etc.). CSEC mandate was renewed by Defence Minister Peter McKay in 2011. The CSEC data has been provided to CSIS and the RCMP allowing these agencies to make an end run around the need for warrants for the data.


The intended purpose, as stated earlier, is to protect and defend the state from subversive forces. The so-called “War on Terrorism” has been used to justify the creation of this program. US President Obama has recently defended the program publicly, and issued a warrant for the arrest of Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who leaked classified documents about the program to the media.

The major argument for the spy program is that we cannot have 100% security and 100% freedom from surveillance. Our liberties depend upon constant vigilance against our enemies. Without a mass surveillance program, we would have major terrorist attacks, and other subversions perpetrated on our democratic system.


How is our democracy impacted by this mass surveillance?
“Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.” – Ben Franklin does this quote hold true today?

Why did it take until now for the mainstream media to reveal the mass surveillance that has been going on since 2002, and re-instated in 2007 (similar legislation was re-instated in 2011 in Canada by Peter McKay)? Is “whistle blowing” the only way to get the mainstream media to report on issues like this today?

Are the whistle blowers Manning and Snowden criminals or heroes?