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January 2015

Snowden Files Reveal CSE Project Levitation Threatens Privacy

On Monday January 26th, David Lyon gave a talk in conjunction with a showing of the Edward Snowden documentary Citizen Four at the Screening Room, the independent cinema in Kingston, Canada. In a review of the documentary Lyon points to the chilling affect mass surveillance has on the expression of democratic rights and freedoms, noting that in the current climate everyone is a target.[1] The following day CBC news released one of Snowden’s files, which detailed the Levitation project led by the Communications Security Establishment (CSE). In the article, University of Toronto Professor Ron Deibert is quoted as describing the project as a ‘giant x-ray machine’. [2] The release was coordinated in partnership with The Intercept, which notes that the data is collected through tapping into Internet cables and not through the cooperation of companies. [3] The project sifts through ten to fifteen million downloads around the world each day with the number of interesting events in the range of a few hundred. While Canadian law prohibits the CSE from targeting Canadian citizens the leaked document shows IP addresses associated with Canadian cities. [4]

            On the same day that the CBC released the Snowden file on Project Levitation, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe released a statement about the threat that mass surveillance poses to human rights. In a resolution on mass surveillance drafted by Rapporteur Pietr Omtzigt it is repeatedly stated that the assembly is ‘deeply concerned’ about mass surveillance practices and the threat they pose to democratic society. [5] Omtzigt refers to an evolving surveillance-industrial complex that could escape ‘democratic control and accountability’. [6] He argues the Snowden files are proof that intelligence agencies, particularly those among the ‘Five Eyes’ avoid national level law by sharing data on each other’s citizens. The sharing of information between agencies underscores the difficulties citizens face in terms of recourse. In addition to the unlikeliness that citizens are even aware of their privacy being compromised, there are increasing numbers of foreign intelligence agencies violating their right to privacy. It is incumbent upon the international community to design legislation that affords greater protection for citizens as they faced increased risk of being targeted by the expanding global surveillance assemblage.

[1]Lyon, “A Surveillance Winter: The Chilling Effect on Freedom.”

[2]Hilderbrandt, Pereira, and Seglins, “CSE Tracks Millions of Downloads Daily.”

[3]Gallagher and Greenwald, “Canada Casts Global Surveillance Dragnet Over File Downloads.”

[4]Hilderbrandt, Pereira, and Seglins, “CSE Tracks Millions of Downloads Daily.”

[5]Omtzigt, Mass Surveillance.




Gallagher, Ryan, and Glenn Greenwald. “Canada Casts Global Surveillance Dragnet Over File Downloads.” The Intercept, January 28, 2015. https://firstlook.org/theintercept/2015/01/28/canada-cse-levitation-mass....

Hilderbrandt, Amy, Michael Pereira, and Dave Seglins. “CSE Tracks Millions of Downloads Daily: Snowden Documents.” CBC, January 27, 2015. http://www.cbc.ca/1.2930120.

Lyon, David. “A Surveillance Winter: The Chilling Effect on Freedom.” The Kingston Whig-Standard, January 22, 2015. http://www.thewhig.com/2015/01/22/a-surveillance-winter-the-chilling-eff....

Omtzigt, Pieter. Mass Surveillance. Parliamentary Assembly, Council of Europe, January 26, 2015.

Open Data: Hope for the New Transparency?


The Government of Canada and the United States Government are actively promoting the open data movement. Both governments have websites that offer information on current projects and provide resources for cities wishing to develop open data policies and practices.  Both countries identify approximately 50 cities that have open data programs in place. The United States government frames open data as an opportunity to make government more accountable and transparent while increasing citizenship participation. The Government of Canada paints a similar picture, suggesting open data fosters public access to, and participation in, government policy and practice. Both governments make use of the term ‘transparency’ in describing the benefits of the open data movement.

At the local level, municipal government officials ultimately choose what types of data will be open. The open data policy for The City of Toronto, to take one example, suggests the municipality will “…share with everyone its open and accessible datasets while adhering to rights of privacy, security and confidentiality…” [i]The City of Chicago published an Open Data Executive Order in 2012 that says the municipality “…is committed to creating an unprecedented level of transparency, honesty and accountability to the public…”[ii] The executive order includes a provision for ‘protected data’ (which is defined by privacy legislation) as well as data on salaries and expenses. It goes on to include provisions for “…any data, which, if disclosed on the City of Chicago data portal, would raise privacy, confidentiality or security concerns or jeopardize or have the potential to jeopardize public health, safety or welfare” (ibid). For a variety of reasons some data clearly should be ‘protected’, which raises questions around how different data sets are categorized as ‘open’ or ‘closed’.

The open data movement is relatively new and is still evolving. The City of Philadelphia has gained recognition as a leader in the development of policy and practice, and has recently released a new strategic plan. The plan addresses the issue of how data sets are chosen for publication and identifies considerations such as privacy concerns, demand and cost of publishing.[iii] Interestingly, the difficulty of getting certain data sets published led to the resignation of Mark Headd who had served as the Chief Technology Officer for the city. In a recent interview he claims there was resistance to releasing data related to ‘salaries and spending’, the kind of data he believes is a measure of true transparency.[iv]

This points to the need for local citizens to advocate for open data. Civic hacking groups have formed in many cities to collaborate on ways to use data sets and push for increased transparency of local government. The Open Data Philly group, which was started by Headd, “…seeks to improve access to data about Philadelphia, increase government transparency and accountability, drive and encourage innovative uses of the data, and inform citizens about our region’s trends”.[v] The Open Edmonton collective in the City of Edmonton brings public sector employees, data analysts and citizens together to develop open data projects and promotes ‘hackathons’. Members of the open data community in Edmonton are organizing a local event as part of the International Open Data Hackathon taking place in February. Several other cities in Canada and the United States are also organizing events.

The open data movement is an interesting and exciting development in surveillance studies. The increasing transparency of citizens as a result of state and corporate practices has dominated both academic research and mainstream media. However, surveillance is not inherently oppressive, discriminatory or dominating; it is ambiguous. [vi]In this time of mass surveillance critical inquiry must undoubtedly continue and expand. However, there is an equally important opportunity for surveillance studies to call attention to the benefits that can accrue from increased transparency of the state.





[i]City of Toronto, “Open Data Policy.”

[ii]City of Chicago, “Open Data Executive Order (No. 2012-2).”

[iii]City of Philadelphia, Open Data Strategic Plan.

[iv]Zaleski, “Welcome to the Open Data Movement’s Turbulent Teenage Years.”

[v]Open Data Philly, “Open Data Philly - About.”

[vi]Lyon, The Electronic Eye: The Rise of Surveillance Society; Bennett et al., Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada.




Bennett, Colin J, Kevin Haggerty, David Lyon, and Valerie Steeves. Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada. Edmonton, Canada: Athabasca University, 2014.

City of Chicago. “Open Data Executive Order (No. 2012-2).” http://www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/narr/foia/open_data_executiveorder.....

City of Philadelphia. Open Data Strategic Plan. Philadelphia: City of Philadelphia, October 2014.

City of Toronto. “Open Data Policy,” 2012. http://www1.toronto.ca/wps/portal/contentonly?vgnextoid=7e27e03bb8d1e310....

Lyon, David. The Electronic Eye: The Rise of Surveillance Society. Minneapolis: Polity Press, 1994.

Open Data Philly. “Open Data Philly - About.” http://opendataphilly.org/about/.

Zaleski, Andrew. “Welcome to the Open Data Movement’s Turbulent Teenage Years,” January 12, 2015. http://nextcity.org/features/view/open-data-cities-mark-headd-philadelph....



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