Last week, Patrick Lagacé -- a columnist for the Quebec paper La Presse -- revealed that the Montreal police had gotten a secret warrant to spy on his phone calls and text messages and collect the location data from his phone, seemingly in an attempt to discover which police officers were the source for stories in La Presse about police corruption (confusingly, Lagacé wasn't involved in these stories).
The revelations are just the latest in a string of stories about journalists being put under surveillance by Quebec police in an effort to learn who their confidential sources are. The spying comes amidst a debate about the Liberal government's complicity in passing Canada's sweeping surveillance law, Bill C-51 (a bill that's been called "Patriot Act fan fiction"), and the lack of action on their election promise to amend the law to rein in its most extreme provisions.
Edward Snowden addresses a conference at Montreal's McGill University and spoke about the surveillance. He noted that journalists are a critical part of the democratic process, and surveillance of journalists constitutes a threat to that role.
“From now on, local police can decide they don’t like what a journalist has been reporting and go to a justice of the peace, who’ll say, ‘Sounds great. Look at the GPS on his phone, figure out everywhere he’s been traveling, figure out anyone he’s communicated with. No, you can’t actually read his emails, you can’t actually listen to his calls, but you can find out anyone he met with, who did he call, how long he was on the phone with them’,” the former CIA agent and NSA employee said. “With this, you can gain an extraordinary understanding of how this individual works.”
The world’s most famous whistleblower suggested SPVM chief Philippe Pichet should resign immediately, describing the surveillance of Lagacé and other journalists as a “radical attack on the operations of the free press.” Snowden also took shots at Montreal mayor Denis Coderre and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard for not firing Pichet.
The Canadian legal system could be to blame, Snowden suggested, since whatever protections once existed to ensure individual freedoms have been undermined by authorities. “Government has built mechanisms to get around these things, these restrictions,” he said. “Can we recognize—or at least debate in a reasonable way—a new idea that is so radical, which is that the law is beginning to fail as a guarantor of our rights?”
Edward Snowden Calls Police Spying on Quebec Journalists a ‘Threat to Democracy’ [Justine De L'Eglise/Motherboard]