Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/12/2013 (1120 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Even people with nothing to hide were on edge after the largest intelligence leak in U.S history revealed government agencies may have spied on them.
In June, documents leaked through the Guardian and Washington Post newspapers alleged the National Security Agency conducted mass surveillance not only of U.S. citizens' telephone calls and online messaging, but of U.S. allies as well.
As more information became public, a Canadian link emerged.
The NSA is part of the so-called Five Eyes signals network, which includes Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) and intelligence agencies from the U.K., Australia and New Zealand.
In November, more leaked documents further implicated Canada. Not only did Canadians participate in spying operations during the 2009 G20 summit in London, but this country permitted the NSA to keep tabs on world leaders and diplomats on Canadian soil the following year when the summit was held in Toronto.
The man at the middle of the sensational leaks is Edward Snowden, who gained access to the information when he worked for less than three months as an IT systems administrator for a NSA contractor.
Is Snowden a whistleblowing hero, or a dangerous criminal? The world seems split by the tension between national security and individual privacy rights. Invariably, the debate hits close to home as people wonder whether government agencies are secretly tracking their personal online activities.
For exposing the vast reach of government cyber-snooping in today's digital world, the NSA-files leak of the NSA files is the Free Press international story of the year.
The difference between data collection by government agencies and Internet companies such as Google can be summed up by one word: consent. When government agencies secretly collect information, you don't get to agree the terms and conditions, said Jeremy Littlewood, director of the Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa.
The NSA-files leak has challenged Canadians to think about what information its intelligence agency should collect in the name of national security, Littlewood said. He noted it has been long understood the CSEC does not collect information on Canadians except in exceptional circumstances when it's asked by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) or RCMP.
"That's leading people to question, 'Should we be involved in this? What is it actually doing? Why are we doing this? What are the benefits from it?' " he said.
The revelations that have followed the leaks have been widespread and created tension in diplomatic relations.
Snowden, who fled to Hong Kong before the first NSA-files leak was reported, requested political asylum in Ecuador, which has been sheltering Wikileaks founder Julian Asange for the past year. Extradition pressure mounted and Snowden left Hong Kong for Moscow at the end of June.
The plane of Bolivian President Evo Morales, who was in Russia for a meeting in July, was grounded in Austria following suspicions Snowden was on board.
Snowden requested and was granted temporary asylum in Russia in August; in protest, U.S. President Barack Obama cancelled a trip there.
Relations with the European Union were strained after leaked documents showed the NSA had a collection of cellphone records from countries, including France and Spain, that had apparently been provided to it by NATO.
The NSA files revealed the agency had tapped the cellphone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
In December, Obama met with the heads of 15 major U.S. Internet companies in favour of reforming the scope of the NSA's intelligence-gathering, particulary given the ramifications it has had and could have on online commerce.
Just last week, The Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel published details on a list of about 1,000 surveillance targets the NSA monitored in collaboration with the U.K.'s intelligence agency. They include an European Union commissioner, the Israeli prime minister and humanitarian organizations, including the United Nations development program.
The U.S Supreme Court has suggested at least some of what the NSA has been doing may not be constitutional.
Even those in the U.S. who drafted the Patriot Act in 2001, following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that brought down the World Trade Centre towers in New York City, said the legislation wasn't intended to give the NSA that much power, Littlewood said. However, it's difficult to know how pervasive the parameters of the NSA and other agencies should be.
"How much should we be collecting? It really depends on what the target is, what the specific problem is and how much information is out there or where it's hidden and how you will go about getting it," he said.
"You can't draw a line and say, 'In 2013, the line is here.' If you changed the law in 2013 and said, 'You can do this. You can look at these issues in this way,' in two years time, you won't be able to fulfill your task because technology changes and so the way that you have to operate changes, too."
While lists of threats to national security, at least in Canada, haven't changed over the past 20 years -- terrorism is still at the top, followed by cyber security, proliferation, foreign interference and transnational organized crime. Threats are dynamic, meaning the ability to respond has to be as well, Littlewood said.
"The more worrying implications, at least from the perspective of those in the intelligence community, are that by revealing of the methods of collection and the ability to collect certain kinds of information, Snowden's revelations are telling potential enemies or others how the U.S. can do things... That makes it easier, potentially easier, for those individuals in one sense to hide under the radar and avoid being caught out."
While the U.S. is currently assessing the jumble of laws and policies that have evolved to hold the NSA accountable since it was created in 1952, Canada hasn't taken similar steps, at least publicly, with regards to the scope of CSEC.
Whether or not Canada does will likely depend on what the NSA files reveal next, said Littlewood, who expects we haven't heard the end of the leaks yet.