BY MADELINE ASHBY
It does nothing to keep Canadians safe.
It is merely a blank cheque written out to CSIS that expands their powers, so they can finally feel better about not being as controversial as their American counterparts in the CIA and NSA. (The CIA gets premium cable shows made about its members, like Homeland, while even Canadians regularly forget that CSIS even exists. Their jealousy is understandable, if a little pathetic.) Its primary benefit is to make the federal Conservatives appear relevant as the dollar diminishes in value, Alberta boomtowns dry up, housing prices skyrocket in Vancouver and Toronto, and, crucially, an election looms on the horizon. It is a fig leaf covering a flaccid, ungainly body of past legislation and policy.
Borrowing its ideas from dystopian science fiction like Minority Report and The Hunger Games, Bill C-51 allows CSIS to arrest anyone they suspect might commit a crime, even if they haven’t done anything. They can be held for a week, which is around the amount of time Winston Smith spends in the Ministry of Love in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Canadians can also be detained for up to five years for simply “promoting” terrorism. Naturally, the bill is somewhat evasive about what that “promotion” means. Presumably it’s like pornography — CSIS knows it when it sees it. The Bill also allows those “promotional” messages to be wiped from the Internet, which means only one thing: CSIS doesn’t know how the Internet actually works. (No wonder they find it so terrifying.) If Jennifer Lawrence can’t get her nude photographs back, I can’t imagine how CSIS thinks it’s going to take down terrorist content.
The bill also allows CSIS to “disrupt” the communications of potential terrorists at home and abroad. “Disrupt” has grown beyond its original meaning, and is currently a Silicon Valley buzzword that Clayton Christensen coined to talk about fringe businesses changing an economic landscape, and that makes this provision of the bill sound more innovative and exciting than it really is. In this context, it seems to mean hacking emails, travel plans, and financial information and sending back mis-information. This seems very high-tech and impressive until you remember it’s a standard 4Chan attack pattern. Cyber-bullies do this kind of thing every day. Gosh, CSIS, you’re going to hack the terrorists’ emails? Maybe you should change their LiveJournal passwords, too, since it’s 1998 and everything.
The technological provisions of Bill C-51 are out of touch with the potential of today’s digital landscape. In a world where we can effectively add smart tags to almost anything using an Arduino, and then use those tags to let things communicate with us and each other, why don’t guns and bags of fertilizer simply track themselves? Why are we watching people, when we could be watching the tools they use? As companies like Siemens promise us “smart cities” that anticipate our needs before we consciously feel them, why aren’t we embedding sensor technology into infrastructure that could detect chemical changes associated with explosives? Is it because that would mean an infrastructure investment, and not a military one? And if CSIS doesn’t know how the Internet works, will they ever learn how the Internet of Things works? When if they do, will it already be too late?
For an anti-terrorism bill, C-51 isn’t doing much to allay Canadian fears. Reception to the bill has been mixed at best, possibly because it reads like a piece of Patriot Act fan fiction. Canadians, and our allies, deserve more than a last-minute play for attention at a time when many federal Conservatives are jumping ship. We deserve better. We deserve to be free.