CRIM 4900: Surveillance, Access, and Privacy – Introduction and Welcome

Starting today, I am teaching a new course: CRIM 4900: Surveillance, Access, and Privacy

To learn about the course, visit the About page.

For the next fourteen weeks, this site will serve as a ‘living syllabus’ for the course. It will be updated weekly with lecture notes, links to relevant resources and news items, multimedia components, and commentary.

For my students: Bookmark this site and / or subscribe to the RSS feed to receive notifications about updates. Be sure to check the site each Wednesday, before attending class.

For my other readers: You are welcome to follow along!

Today’s Seminar:

Introduction: Our first seminar will begin with an introduction to the course and an overview of our policies, assignments, and schedule of topics and readings. This will be followed by an introductory lecture and discussion based on the key themes that will inform our work. Of particular importance will be the discussion of themes that connect the study of secrecy, transparency, access to information, surveillance, and privacy. We will explore the basic architecture of the Canadian Access Regime, the history and politics of the ‘right to know’, and the trends shaping the terrain of surveillance and visibility in Canada.

Next Week: 

Surveillance and Visibility: Our second seminar will focus on a more detailed and conceptual introduction to surveillance studies. We will explore the general expansion and diversification of forms of surveillance, the role of surveillance in everyday life, and the concept of surveillance creep. We will engage with the work of prominent surveillance theorists Lyon and Bauman, with an emphasis on their discussion of ‘liquid surveillance’. Among the concepts we explore will be the panoptic metaphor, social sorting, and the theme of ‘uneven transparency’. This seminar will also feature our first info-lab. Info-labs are hands-on, how-to mini-seminars designed to cover the fundamentals of ATI/FOI research. Our first info-lab will focus on the nature of the ‘live archive’ and the forms of records that can be obtained through ATI/FOI law.


New book – ‘Access in the Academy’, published by BC FIPA

I am thrilled to announce the release of my new book, ‘Access in the Academy‘, published by the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association.

Access in the Academy is a user’s guide to the BC FOI and Canadian ATI systems, geared towards academics and other researchers. It is a stand-alone text that provides a detailed introduction to ATI/FOI research, including preliminary research, request preparation and filing, brokering access, and troubleshooting. You might describe it as the ‘missing chapter’ on FOI from a research methods textbook.

This project was made possible through a Small Projects Grant from the Law Foundation of British Columbia. FIPA organized a terrific peer review process, and my original draft manuscript was revised in response incredibly helpful feedback from a great team of experienced ATI/FOI users, librarians, journalists, and student researchers.

You can download a PDF copy of the book from the BC FIPA website. The text is free, but you have the option of providing a donation to BC FIPA, which I strongly encourage – FIPA is really at the forefront of Access and Privacy advocacy in BC and at the federal level.

I (and FIPA) welcome feedback on Access in the Academy, and I hope that you find it to be a useful resource for your own ATI/FOI research.

Download link


Access in the Academy release announcement:

Access in the Academy: Now Available!
July 25th, 2013 12:00am
The B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association is extremely pleased to announce the official release of our brand new educational resource: Access in the Academy: Bringing ATI and FOI to academic research.

The text is”now available for download by donation” (with a click-through for those who don’t wish to make a contribution) through our website. We also have a limited number of print copies still available by request. If you are a faculty member, represent a university library, or any other institution that provides public legal education services and would like a hard copy, please get in touch with Tyler Morgenstern at tyler [at] with the details of your request.

FIPA would like to acknowledge the generous support of the Law Foundation of British Columbia whose Small Projects Grants program made this new resource possible. We would also like to thank Mike Larsen (our lead researcher and author) and our outstanding review team, without whose extremely hard work, Access in the Academy would simply not exist.

With that, it’s our great pleasure to invite you to”download the text today” and spread the word to your colleagues, students, and instructors. We’d also like to take this opportunity to invite you to”make a contribution to FIPA” in exchange for the resource. As a small non-profit, it’s the support of our community that makes our public legal education programs possible. There is no minimum contribution–every bit helps.

Thank you very much, and we hope you enjoy Access in the Academy!

Thinking About the Politics of Secrecy and Disclosure

I prepared this poster as an aid for my CRIM 4900 Investigative Methods class. It pulls together some useful resources for thinking about secrecy. There are many additional sources of interest – texts that examine particular  practices, legislation and associated political debates related to the laws of secrecy and transparency, and studies of the social organization of information controls within government, for instance – but this is a good start.

Download as a PDF: CRIM 4900_Conceptualizing Secrecy

Or view as a JPEG

CRIM 4900_Conceptualizing Secrecy

MuckRock’s way of remembering Aaron Swartz

US-based FOI advocacy group and information hub MuckRock is honouring the memory of Aaron Swartz by offering free FOI requests.

From MuckRock founder Michael Morisy:

If Aaron’s methods and aims in freeing information were “radical,” then they were reactions to deep-rooted, systematic failures that often demanded radical responses.

Today, as a small way to remember Aaron, and to help continue his legacy of agitation, we’re offering free requests, for everyone. Let us know what information you would like to see free, and how Aaron impacted you.

Together, let’s continue to fight for good in the world.

Aaron Swartz, 1986 – 2013 In Remembrance

This is a wonderful – and meaningful – way to celebrate the life and work of an open access / accountability advocate.

Handbill for my Spring 2013 ‘Secrecy and Investigative Research’ course

Click below for a PDF overview of my CRIM 4900 ‘Investigative Research’ course. The course will be offered in Spring 2013. As a seminar course, space is limited to 25 students.

CRIM 4900_Handbill

Thoughts on Freedom of Information and ‘Government 2.0’

Last week, I had the honour of being a panelist at the 2012 BC Info Summit, organized by the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association. The event was, from my perspective and from all accounts, a great success.

My panel was on FOI under Government 2.0. It followed in the wake of an earlier panel that focused on BC Open Data initiative – the proactive publishing of government data sets. Open Data is described as a means of facilitating transparency and a way of involving non-governmental groups and the private sector in the exploitation of information (which is regarded as a resource).

I am generally supportive of the Open Data initiative. The principle that government data belongs to the public and should be accessible without access brokering is important, and the data sets that are emerging are useful to me as a researcher, educator, and citizen.


Open data is neither synonymous with nor an alternative to  a meaningful ATI/FOI regime backed by a strong legal framework. While both open data and ATI/FOI mechanisms are ostensibly intended to facilitate transparency (and, by extension, informed participatory democracy), they differ fundamentally in at least two ways.

First, in terms of the location of agency: These pathways to information differ in terms of who has the power to initiate the process, and who is in the position of responding. ATI/FOI mechanisms provide members of the public with the legal means to initiate a process that, if successful, can lead to the release of government records. The best mechanisms go a step further and support the ‘quasi-constitutional’ right to know by building the means to compel the release of records into the law – through public interest override provisions and order-making powers for ombudspersons, for example. A strong ATI/FOI regime means that citizens do not have to be contented to wait for information to be proactively released. This is particularly important because, rhetoric about accountability and open government notwithstanding, all governments have a vested interest in keeping politically contentious information under wraps, and an orientation towards secrecy is a natural feature of bureaucracy. As a rule, the data most likely to be proactively released by a given department or agency is unlikely to be embarrassing, contentious, or indicative of misconduct. This should surprise no-one.

Second, in terms of the qualitative nature of the information released: The proliferation of open data portals, applications, and initiatives reflects the ongoing digitalization of governance. The emergence of the ‘database state’ has supplemented, but not replaced, the wide range of texts that circulate within and between government agencies – memos, emails, briefing notes, media lines, reports, Q&A documents, budget outlines, draft speeches, meeting minutes, memorandums of understanding, etc. These texts can be accessed through ATI/FOI mechanisms but are never subject to systematic proactive release. Following what Walby and I refer to as a ‘textual trail’ can allow us to understand the internal workings of agencies and the social organization of government practices. It can shed light on who is speaking, about what, to whom, when, and for what purpose. In some cases, it can reveal the dirty backstage politics that are hidden behind a polished image carefully prepared for public consumption.

It is important to note that the proactive release of data by governments is always partial. Data sets, which are increasingly regarded as important sources of information for investigative journalists, are not always made available to the public. Unreleased data sets can be accessed through ATI/FOI mechanisms. This is the focus of Jim Rankin’s excellent chapter in Brokering Access.

My Info Summit talk was based on the idea that Open Data and ATI/FOI are on diverging paths.

On the one hand, we are seeing the emergence of more – and more sophisticated – data sets proactively released by governments who frame this practice as an exercise in transparency. These data sets are made available in ‘raw’ form or, more often, through the medium of a software application designed to make them useful. Delegates at the Info Summit described some fascinating and innovative smartphone apps based on proactively released government data. This is a trend worth supporting.

On the other hand, though, ATI/FOI mechanisms remain comparatively behind-the-times. Law reform in this area is difficult, politically contentious, and not as easy for governments to package for purposes of public relations. The Canadian Access to Information Act is a living fossil long overdue for a complete overhaul. Delays are systemic and requests (at the federal and provincial levels) are often subject to exemptions or quasi-exemptions. The BC FIPA recently reported on an alarming trend in the rates of ‘no records’ results in the province.

What are the implications of these trends? Two stand out.

  • The growth of open data portals, proactive releases, and the trend towards publishing previously-released ATI/FOI packages allow governments to point to concrete steps being taken to facilitate transparency and accountability. This may provide a useful diversion from the problems with ATI/FOI laws, policies, and practices.  Stanley Tromp articulates this well:

The dilemma is the contrast between two options: The first is governments’ hot new fad of voluntarily posting online data sets of information as well its use of more social media such as Twitter and Facebook. The second is the urgent need for a more effective freedom of information law, which is a statute that gives every citizen the legal right to compel the state to release records.

  • The technological mediation of access through open data initiatives – which require computers, smart phones, and the savvy to use them – may hinder the accessibility of access. Prisoners, homeless persons, and members of other marginalized groups already encounter structural barriers when it comes to exercising their ‘right to know’. If the current trend towards open data and online access continues, these groups will be doubly disadvantaged.

The answer to these problems is not to  be found in disparaging open data initiatives. We need to continue to foster the proactive release of government records and data, and to make use of this information. But we also need to ensure that governments are not able to point to this trend as a substitute for ATI/FOI law reform. We also need to ensure that the convergence of government data and emerging technologies does not contribute to the gulf between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ of the means of access.

In terms of concrete actions, I would like to see provincial governments and the Government of Canada invest in the modernization of ATI/FOI laws and in initiatives designed to make our access regimes more accessible (and inviting!) to citizens regardless of age, class, status, or resources.

For more on the ATI/FOI and Government 2.0, I recommend Stanley Tromp’s recent pair of articles for The Tyee:

Open Government? The Dangerous Distraction of Faux Transparency


Three Additions to My Open Government Plea

CSIS Accountability and the Canadian Human Rights Commission

A recent ATI request for memos from the Director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service to the Minister of Public Safety included copies of an exchange regarding a Canadian Human Rights Commission report on accountability for human rights compliance.

I passed the records on to Jim Bronskill of the Canadian Press, who published a story on the topic this week.

OTTAWA – Canada’s top spy has rejected a call from a federal watchdog for more scrutiny of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service’s human rights record.

In a newly declassified memo, CSIS director Dick Fadden dismisses the Canadian Human Rights Commission’s recommendation that national security agencies do more to ensure they are not taking part in racial profiling or other objectionable practices.

“I am confident in the service’s existing human rights policies and procedures, as well as our accountability and review structures,” Fadden says in the January 2012 memo to Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.

“We have taken aggressive proactive steps to prevent discrimination and profiling in the service, and our investigation and reporting are pursued to protect Canadians and not out of any discriminatory bias.”

The memo — initially classified secret — was provided to The Canadian Press by Mike Larsen, a criminology instructor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia, who obtained it under the Access to Information Act.

Click here to read the full story.

I don’t think that there was ever a realistic prospect of CSIS embracing the CHRC’s recommendations (which included a human rights compliance checklist for policy and a call for the collection of data related to human rights). The tone of CSIS Director Fadden’s memo to Minister Toews is dismissive.

Meaningful accountability mechanisms for ‘high policing’ organizations like CSIS tend not to emerge, voluntarily, from within those organizations. Instead, they must be implemented by an external body (Parliament). Given the current trajectory of accountability for national security agencies in Canada, I think that  it will take a change of government before we see positive changes. The latest canary in the mineshaft was the abolition of the Office of the Inspector General of CSIS (not particularly robust accountability body to begin with).

See Reg Whitaker’s August 2012 piece in Prism Magazine for more analysis on the Canadian national security accountability environment.

If anyone would like to receive copies of the records released under this ATI request, please contact me at