So, when do we start caring about privacy?

The Canadian government has been spying on and collecting our emails en masse. Yawn, right?
A man surfs the Internet in a dark room.
Joel Addams/Getty Images
Joel Addams/Getty Images

According to a document obtained by Edward Snowden, and analyzed in a collaboration by CBC with the American news site The Intercept, Canada’s electronic spy agency, Communications Security Establishment (CSE), has been collecting millions of our emails sent to government inboxes and storing them for months or more. The justification: The government wants to prevent itself from malware attacks. The problem, as Matt Braga of Motherboard writes, is “the breadth and scope of that surveillance.” CSE is usually not allowed to just randomly grab the communications of Canadians, but it’s okay if it’s in the name of cyberdefence—a scarily far-reaching, vague reason.

But, like, booo-oooooring, am I right?

On Tuesday, Belgium’s privacy watchdog released a report that found that Facebook—the social media network 14 million Canadians log in to every day, and 10 million have sitting in their pockets—had been breaking European law. Their claim: that Facebook’s latest privacy-policy change offers a brutal take-it-or-leave-it choice, wherein consent is unclear (the ability to opt out does not constitute consent, it says) and wherein, if you disagree with the policy, you are cordially invited not to be on Facebook. “In other words, Facebook leverages its dominant position on the . . . market to legitimize the tracking of individuals’ behaviour across services and devices,” the report reads.

Zzzzzzzzzz—hm, sorry, were you saying something?

In mid-December, the Supreme Court delivered its ruling on R v. Fearon. The accused, Kevin Fearon, had a cellphone that wasn’t locked and, when he was arrested for committing armed robbery, police entered the phone without a warrant, where they found a photo of a handgun and unsent text messages connecting him and an accomplice to the crime. It was a landmark case that, perhaps more than any other before it, would set the staging ground for how Canadian courts would handle mobile devices, the miniature computers the vast majority of us own and which is, without question, the next frontier in what can be held against us in a court of law. Sam Goldstein, the lawyer representing Fearon, told me in an interview before the ruling that the case “rides on the shoulders of giants” and that this would be the one to shift the national paradigm in the matter of digital privacy.

Then the December ruling surprised watchers: The divided court said police could search cellphones without a warrant, though with conditions. It was a blow against privacy, from a fairly pro-privacy court, expert Michael Geist wrote at the time. Canada moved on, in nearly the same day.

So at what point does the public mobilize? Privacy should, by every right, be the essential debate of our modern digital era; it is the newest and most pressing issue on our plate. Even Aaron Sorkin predicted as much, in a 1999 episode of The West Wing. (A post from earlier this week reminded me that we didn’t invent the USB key until 2000, putting into extreme relief the degree to which technology has evolved.) Yet stories and revelations of our fumbling and slouching to Bethlehem—or, in some cases, our government’s rather insidious machinations—continue to earn yawns and swipe-pasts.

We are convinced, of course, that privacy is a matter that affects other people. R v. Fearon? That guy deserved it, because he committed a crime; I don’t commit crimes. Breaking European law? Well, that’s not in North America! And government emails? So what? I don’t send them anything incriminating!

Except that creating caveats for our standards in these early days of an entire field is profoundly problematic. If Canadians don’t set the tone for what we want in our privacy, we will allow companies and governments to set the rules for us. This is indeed a problem, then, of other people—that is, the fact that other people will be setting the agenda for our own privacy.

Good thing there’s no upcoming bill being proposed in Canada that could set the stage for a genuine debate over our country’s privacy rights. (Update, May 6: Bill C-51 passed the House of Commons.)