The Canadian government is prepared to support a U.S. effort to restrict the use of powerful commercial spyware that is used to surveil activists, journalists and dissidents, according to a White House document.
While the two governments maintain their own sophisticated spying programs, the Biden administration has recently signalled growing concern with private market surveillance tools that can steal data like text messages and other sensitive information from mobile phones.
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That concern was framed in Biden’s executive order on Monday, which restricted the U.S. government’s use of commercial spyware that poses “significant counterintelligence or security risks” to the U.S. or where the software could be improperly used by foreign governments.
Now, Canada and eight other nations — including Five Eyes intelligence allies Australia, New Zealand and the U.K. — appear ready to support the Biden administration’s push.
A White House document issued Wednesday stated Canada will be among those allies to issue a joint statement aimed at countering “the proliferation and misuse of commercial spyware.” The joint statement is expected to be released at Biden’s Summit on Democracy in Washington, D.C.
The move sends a “strong signal” to spyware vendors and their investors that “business as usual is over, and that the very lucrative U.S. federal government market is out of bounds” for firms engaging in human rights abuses, according to Ron Deibert, director of Citizen Lab.
“The joint statement shows that the U.S. is actively encouraging other governments to follow suit,” Deibert, whose organization has documented the growth of “mercenary” spyware for years, told Global News Wednesday evening.
“Is there more work to be done? Absolutely. But the bottom line is a dial was turned a few notches and a giant machine has been moved in ways that will make life difficult for firms, their investors and government clients that profit from and cause harm worldwide.”
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It remains to be seen what steps the Canadian government will actually take — if any — to limit the use of commercial spyware by its own department and agencies. The Prime Minister’s Office acknowledged Global News’ request for comment Wednesday evening, but did not respond as of deadline.
It’s also largely unclear what surveillance tools have been and are continuing to be used by federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies, such as the RCMP, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and the Communications Security Establishment (CSE).
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The RCMP denied they were deploying controversial facial recognition software Clearview AI, for instance, before admitting they used the tool after the Toronto Star obtained the company’s Canadian client list.
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Last year, RCMP Assistant Commissioner Mark Flynn told a House of Commons committee that the Mounties have been deploying cell phone spyware since at least 2002 — with little public or political awareness the national force was using such invasive tools.
Despite spearheading the initiative, the U.S. government does not appear to be open to discussing how often its own departments and agencies have made use of the technology.
In a background briefing with reporters on Monday, a senior U.S. administration official said they could not get into “additional details” about how often commercial spyware has been used by the U.S. government and federal law enforcement. The official said they publicly announced they were pursuing a ban last year, however, in order to send a message to companies attempting to make “inroads” with federal agencies.
“This is partly us getting ahead of a challenge, foreseeing the fact that there (were) no standards — no concrete and consistent standards across the U.S. government — and also, as a result, allowing us to lead by example with other partners around the world,” said the official, who spoke on the condition they not be named.
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Even with the ambiguity about what, precisely, Canada is committing to do, Deibert called it a “positive” that Ottawa signed on to the initiative.
“History shows that there have been several Canadian firms engaged in providing surveillance services to autocrats and despots without any proper oversight or public accountability,” Deibert said.
“Alongside the recent and very vague RCMP disclosures on spyware, these demonstrate a policy and regulatory vacuum in Canada.”
“Hopefully, signing on to this pledge will trigger more substantial initiatives following the U.S. lead.”
— with a file from the Associated Press.
© 2023 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.
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