Deobfuscating State Security Surveillance Capabilities in Canada

Light, Evan | $38,118

Ontario York University 2021 SSHRC

What, precisely, are the human surveillance capabilities of state security services, writ large, and what are the legislative and policy frameworks that govern these capabilities? This has been a vexing question for surveillance studies scholars working in various fields, for civil society organizations and even for lawmakers themselves. Given the wave of revelations concerning unwarranted mass surveillance operating outside normal bounds and oversight, urgent demands for policing reform, and the expansion of policing powers in Canada during the COVID‑19 pandemic, these questions have become urgent. Before they can be adequately regulated, the surveillance capabilities of the state security apparatus must first be clearly understood. Our project initiates a comprehensive study of the surveillance capabilities of state security servicesfrom the municipal to the national. We aim to detect patterns of collaboration and exchange among state security services and to comprehend the surveillance capacities of the state at large. Our scope is limited to the direct surveillance of citizens and their actions and is especially relevant in a post-COVID-19 era, where unregulated surveillance technologies have expanded in the name of public health and when both the effects of the pandemic and of surveillance have been shown to disproportionately affect racialized communities.

The research team is composed of leading, emerging scholars: Dr. Light (applicant), an expert in communications policy and surveillance, Dr. Gulden Ozcan (co-applicant), a social theorist with an expertise in policing, race and class, and Dr. Whyte (co-applicant), a political geographer with a background in the political economy communication.

The expertise of each team member will contribute to the success of the project and its three objectives:

1) Collect, organize and make available public information on the human surveillance capabilities of Canadian state security services.

The first objective will improve literacy around the surveillance capabilities of Canadian state security services through the use of public records requests, media analysis and documentary research. This objective will see the creation of an online public database where research materials and analysis can be accessed by the public.

2) Map the surveillance capabilities of state security services and their uses.

Recent years have seen a massive shift in both technological capacity and method with regard to surveillance capabilities by state security services. We now have pervasive systems of surveillance and analysis, combinations of big data and algorithmic prediction that have introduced a problematic lack of transparency. This project’s second objective will rely on the expertise of the entire research team, determining the geographic distribution of surveillance tools and documenting and analyzing their uses.

3) Map legislative and policy frameworks for surveillance tools.

While some surveillance tools may have well-defined legal frameworks, others are comprised of loopholes and carve-outs. This project’s third objective is to document the (lack of) legislative and policy frameworks that (fail to) govern the use of every surveillance tool uncovered in the course of this research as well as determining if there are surveillance tools in use that are not subject to such governance.

Surveillance studies is inherently interdisciplinary. This project and its construction of open-data resources will contribute to advancing knowledge in several fields by generating mapping tools that will be used for analysis of surveillance tools and policies across multiple geographic and socioeconomic planes.

Disciplines for committee composition: communication and media studies, geography, sociology

With funding from the Government of Canada

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