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Spy palaces in the age of austerity

Evan Johnston

December 11, 2013

The revelations over the past year about the US government's global spy network has provoked intense reactions from individuals and governments around the world, and has sparked a critical debate on the status of privacy in the age of social media. Thanks to documents leaked by NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden, we also know that the Canadian state has been operating its own independent spy agency, Communications Security Establishment Canada, which has worked closely not only with the United States, but with the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand as part of the “Five Eyes” surveillance network.
Many have rightly drawn attention to the role played by new technologies in facilitating the transfer of private data to government agencies, but have left unanswered the question as to why our governments have been expanding their surveillance infrastructure. What is the relationship between austerity and the drive toward an expanded security state? And what role does fear and racism play in justifying that expansion?
A spy palace of one's own
Over the last several months, details have emerged about the extent of Canada's own spy agency which has been busy collecting data on people here and around the world.
While spying on First Nations, environmentalists, and anti-war activists has been a favourite pastime of CSIS and the RCMP for decades, what is striking in these new revelations is how widespread the practice has become.
In June, the Globe and Mail broke the story about the Canadian government's secret "metadata" surveillance program run by the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), the Canadian government's national electronic intelligence agency administered by the Department of National Defence.
The CSEC metadata collecting program, which scans global telephone records and internet data for patterns of suspicious activity, was first approved and signed in 2005 by Liberal Defence Minister Bill Graham. It was re-newed after a lengthy hiatus in 2011 by Conservative Defence Minister Peter MacKay, despite the existence of secret documents warning the government that CSEC may not have been acting within its legal limits.
CSEC and the defenders of its spy program claim that the collection of metadata does not constitute an invasion of privacy. However, as several commentators and human rights experts have pointed out, phone records, IP addresses, and other online data can reveal patterns of who knows whom, and how well.
The B.C. Civil Liberties Association and OpenMedia have filed a lawsuit against CSEC over its targeting of Canadian citizens, charging that the spy program violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms' protections against unreasonable search and seizure and infringe on free expression.
But the spy agency has also been targeting individuals and governments, and documents leaked by former National Security Agency (NSA) whistle-blower Edward Snowden have revealed the full extent of CSEC and the NSA's international reach.
As the most recently leaked document reveals, CSEC has set up spying posts around the world – “approximately 20 high-priority countries" – and has conducted espionage against trading partners at the request of the NSA.
As the document further states, "CSEC offers resources for advanced collection, processing and analysis, and has opened covert sites at the request of NSA.”
Former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald – the collaborator of Edward Snowden who first broke the story of the NSA spy program – has stated that there is still more information on CSEC's spying operations to come. Considering Harper's decision to build a new $1.2 billion spy palace for CSEC in Ottawa, information exposing how CSEC operates can't come soon enough.
The rise of the neoliberal security state
So how did we get here? We could start by looking at the RCMP spy operations against communists (and their suspected sympathizers) during the cold war, or at the surveillance of Muslim communities that resulted from the state-sanctioned Islamophobia in the post-9/11 period.
Or, at the most basic level, we could start by analyzing Canada as an imperialist nation-state with its own set of economic and geostrategic interests. As a state looking to maximize investment opportunities for its own capitalist class, the move toward cooperative spy operations is a logical way to remain included in the circulation of valuable information, and to remain positioned as a key ally to the United States.
However, the expansion of the surveillance apparatus externally cannot be divorced from the changes to the Canadian state internally, specifically those changes that relate to the repressive state apparatus as a whole. We need to contextualize the growth of spying in relation to the growth of prisons, police, the military, and – most of all – to the changes in social provisioning that have been the hallmark of the neoliberal period.
In the introduction to the 1995 federal budget, then Finance Minister (and future Prime Minister) Paul Martin explained that his budget would "fundamentally reform what the federal government does and how it does it. That reform is structural - i.e., it will change permanently the way government operates." These structural reforms included "deep cuts in the level of federal program spending - not simply lower spending growth, but a substantial reduction in actual dollars spent."
In the nearly two decades since his budget was introduced, we have seen a continuation and deepening of those structural reforms – particularly in the era of Harper Conservatism – with the global crisis that began in 2008 providing the pretext for introducing ever greater austerity measures.
Contrary to the rhetoric of shared sacrifice, not every governmental ministry has been equally effected by the deep cuts in federal spending. In a 2012 op-ed in the National Post, Conservative cabinet ministers Peter MacKay, Julian Fantino and Steven Blaney boasted that the Harper government has increased military investment "by 27% — or over $5-billion — to unprecedented levels."
We can see similar figures when we look at Harper's law-and-order agenda. According to one analyst, "Human resources allocated to the Correctional Service of Canada are projected to have grown by more than 25 per cent and financial resources by more than 38 per cent over the period 2009-10 to 2012-13."
Indeed, the recent strike over a 30 per cent pay cut by prisoners in Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick, as well as the hunger strike by migrant detainees in Ontario over poor prison conditions, has revealed the increasing importance of the prison as a site of struggle.
But this double movement of decreased social spending, on the one hand, and increased funding for the security state, on the other, is exactly what the late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu meant when he contrasted the "left" and "right" hands of the state. As the left hand of the state becomes weaker, the right hand grows in importance.
In other words, as the capacity and reach of the social safety net is reduced, capitalism creates a crisis of legitimacy: if the state is not there to provide social provisions, or to mitigate against the most devastating aspects of the market, how does it maintain the consent of those it claims to govern? Increasingl, it does so by relying on force in order to justify its very existence, and we can see this most clearly in the increasing militarization of Canadian police forces, the introduction of more draconian crime bills, and the expansion of its surveillance infrastructure.
Crucially, this expansion of the security state relies heavily on the production of fear: fear of immigrants, fear of "Islamicism," fear of racialized youth. Internationally, we are made to fear China, Iran, or Russia. Most recently, we have seen the resistance of the Elsipogtog First Nation labeled as "domestic terrorism," which serves to delegitimize their struggle, justify an increasingly militarized response to their demands, and to re-inforce the notion that First Nations communities are suspicious and deserving of surveillance.
Austerity and resistance
We are living through an age of austerity – an age of cuts, privatization, and fundamental attacks on the rights of workers. From the G20 to Elsipogtog, from Bill 78 in Quebec to Bill 42 in Alberta, we are witnessing an aggressive clampdown on resistance that requires an ever greater capacity on the part of the Canadian state to police, monitor, and imprison. As we continue to learn more about Canada's role in international spy networks, it is important that we be able to read the $1.2 billion price-tag associated with CSEC's new spy palace as representative of Harper's overall strategy: the rich get richer and the police get a palace, and you can't have one without the other.
But in spite of the fear and atomization that the security state seeks to impose, people have been fighting back in large numbers. Hundreds of thousands of Quebec students defied the anti-protest laws of Bill 78 and took down a government, and the Elsipogtog First Nation continues to defend their land from fracking in the face of RCMP intimidation. As journalist Glenn Greenwald reminds us, "courage is contagious," and it is by generalizing from these courageous actions against surveillance and state intimidation that we can break through the climate of fear.

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