WATCH THIS DOCUMENTARY: The Great Canadian Tax Dodge

The Great Canadian Tax Dodge, is an amazing documentary on how large corporations and the wealthy in Canada avoid paying tax, it airs for the first time tomorrow on TVO. I was a researcher for the film, but when I watched it for the first time last night and I found it eye opening.

[[UPDATE: You can now watch this video online at

Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 9.54.15 AMIf you own a TV I highly recommend you tune in to TVO at 9pm on Wednesday February 4th. You can check out the trailer here. [I will update this post when the full doc becomes available online].

Another great investigation into tax dodging in Canada is this shorter 16 minute documentary that Bruce Livesey produced for Global’s Investigative Program 16×9:

If you want to hear Bruce talk about this subject in person, he is giving a talk at the Toronto Reference Library next week, on Tuesday Feb 10th from 1pm to 3 pm.

And if you want to learn even more about how Canadians are involved in hiding their money offshore, Harvey Cashore, Zach Dubinsky and bunch of great journalist other journalists at the CBC teamed up with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) to report on a massive leak of files from ten different tax offshore tax havens in 2013. This interactive is a great place to start looking at their reporting, but they produced several stories from this data.

MScreen Shot 2015-02-03 at 9.31.48 AMore recently the same team has reported on how a federal government pension board used complicated tax schemes to avoid paying tax.

Although CBC was given broad access to the information leaked to the ICIJ, a database containing a more limited amount of information was published online for anyone to use. This allowed organizations like the Toronto Media Co-op to cover the how people in Toronto were hiding their money off shore. Although spearheaded by Gwalgen Geordie Dent, I also played a hand in this reporting, including making the logo for their reporting.

Tax law, and the reporting that covers it can be dry, but this topic is tremendously important, and the reporting that shines a light upon it, is a powerful example of why we need strong investigative reporting in the country and around the world.


Telephone Breadcrumbs: Google lets you look at (some of) your metadata

A Google employee recently demonstrated on his blog just how revealing data collected by our telephones can be.  The digital information about our activities that is generated by our telephones and other electronic devices is known as “metadata,” and has been the subject of much debate since Edward Snowden released a trove of NSA documents.Metadata

One of Daniel Russell’s roles at Google is showing the public just how powerful the research tools provided by Google really are. Every week he posts research challenges on his personal blog, SearchResearch, and then demonstrates how he would tackle the challenges.

Last month, he asked his readers “what can you deduce” from a file that he uploaded to the blog. The file contained GPS information, one of the many sorts of metadata generated by our telephones. In effect it recorded Russell’s location every few minutes over a one-week period, so long as his phone was turned on.

The same sort of data is being collected on everyone who has a phone with GPS enabled. If your phone runs on android and you want to look at where you went in the last week, or download the information all you need to do is visit: (iphone and ipad can also click the link, because under some circumstances Google is collecting this data on them).

In the comment section of the blog readers commented on what they had learned, including where Russell had traveled, where he lived, the hotels he stayed at, and what coffee shop he frequented in the mornings.

However in a series of follow up posts Russell showed much more could be learned from the file. For example, he showed how you could measure the speed travelled between any of the two times recorded in the file. With this speed you can determine when was travelling by car, walking or riding a bicycle.

Using freely available tools online tools, a tremendous amount of insights can be gathered on someone’s life based on their GPS coordinates. Yet, this pales in comparison to the sort of analysis that can be carried out by law enforcement and spy agencies that are in the business of collecting this sort of data.

Many of the analysis tools used by spy agencies are shrouded in secrecy, but due to the documents released to the media by Snowden some details have emerged. The Washington Post reported on and NSA program called CO-TRAVELER, in which they track not only the metadata from a targets telephone, but also “incidentally” gather information from the telephones of everyone else who is in the same vicinity. Through state-of-the-art analytic techniques they use this data to determine who the target is meeting or travelling with.

Defenders of spy agencies have argued that the bulk collection of metadata is not intrusive to someone’s privacy in the way that eavesdropping on a phone call is. But critics have contended that analyzing someone’s metadata can reveal even more about their activities than the actual contents of a phone call.

Here in Canada, metadata made headline when the CBC reported that the Communication Security Establishment (CSE), the Canadian agency with close ties to the NSA, was gathering metadata on travellers at a Canadian airport.  The retired judge who oversees CSE’s compliance with the law, determined there was nothing wrong with this collection, despite noting that “the law prohibits CSE from directing its activities at Canadians”.

There are some noteworthy arguments that the media misunderstood the use of airport travellers metadata, but CSE collect a much vaster amount of metadata than what was used in that program. In fact CSE sees collecting metadata as crucial to fulfilling its mandate.

The BC Civil Liberties Association is currently suing the CSE due to it “sweeping collection of metadata information produced by Canadians.”  Geo-location information is included in their suit.

But the government defends its use of metadata noting, “Metadata is not a communication that conveys or attempts to convey meaning, but rather information of a technical nature.”

It is not just spy agencies who are collecting metadata, police make use this information, and can acquire it through a warrant, or by having it voluntarily provided to them. However the corporations who collect information on their customers can also put it to use in order to gain insights on their lives.

In November, the Silicon Valley corporation Uber, disciplined one of its own executives following accusations that he tracked the whereabouts of a journalist who was critically reporting on the company. The company had developed a tool called “God View” that facilitated this sort of snooping.=

I have been well aware of the degree to which metadata can reveal immense amounts of information about our lives, but I had never analyzed metadata myself. Reading Russell’s blog posts I got a hands-on sense of what doing that sort of analysis is like, the sort of false signals that appear, and more concretely how you would use that data to understand someone’s life in an intimate way.

If you want to increase your skills as a researcher, I highly recommend Russell’s blog: Search Research. I don’t always have the time to tackle the challenges, but I always get a lot from reading it.

Elections and Open Data

With only a few days to go before Toronto’s municipal election I want to highlight one of my latest endeavours: It is a website that mashes up open data to provide insights and analysis on candidates for City Council.

I worked on this project with the amazing Phillip Smith, who was interviewed about the site on CBC’s Metro Morning.

One of the elements I enjoyed about this project was the challenge that Philip approached me with: What is the most amount of research you can do on candidates for the least amount of hours. Using the names, emails and postal codes of candidates, we were able to gather large amounts of information on candidates without looking each one up one at a time.

The site includes a profile page for each candidates for City Council and Public School Trustee. Each of these profiles include information such as if their name appears in the lobbyist registry, if they ran for office, or donated money in the last two elections, if they live inside the ward they are running in – and if not, how far away they live, as well as contact information and links to surveys on the councillors activities from other websites.

As well as these profile pages we created several articles and blog posts. One looked at the fact that over 35% of candidates for city council live outside the ward they are running in and explored a range of views on if living inside the ward is relevant. Another showed how many twitter followers each candidate has. We also used councillors twitter accounts to create a page that show the faces of almost all the candidates for city council.

I also published a chart that shows what portion of the current councillors’ donations in the last election came from inside their own ward and what portion came from outside of city limits. The results are fascinating, for example Giorgio Mammoliti had only 1% of his funds come from his own constituents. I had originally created this graphic a few months ago, but earlier efforts to publish it fell through, and I wanted to get it out before the election. A write up is found here, but I have also pasted the chart at the bottom of this post.

The election is almost over, but in order to make this project happen I had to learn a lot of new skills and I am looking forward to finding other places I can put them to use.


Spying, intelligence and Canada’s energy interests

Last month I wrote an article with Martin Lukacs that was published in the Guardian the explored the focus of Canada’s intelligence agencies on energy interests, and specifically looks at an ongoing series of events where Canadian agencies brief  energy companies on classified intelligence.

The article came on the heels of revelations by TV Globo and Glenn Greenwald, based on documents leaked by Edward Snowden, that the Communications Security Establishment Canada(CSEC)  had been spying on the Brazil Ministry of Mines and Energy.

There is a no indication that  intelligence gathered in Brazil, was shared with energy companies, but the briefings reveal another aspect of how Canada’s focus on supporting energy interests influences Canada’s spy agencies.

In the last week two article were published that show that the National Energy Board collaborated with CSIS and the RCMP to keep tabs on both environmental and indigenous groups who were taking an interest in Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline.

The first article in the Vancouver Observer, by Matthew Millar, shows documents that directly reference one of the classified briefings discussed in the Guardian article. Two days later the Globe and Mail published an article is by Shawn McCarthy based on the documents in the Vancouver Observer story.

You can find links documents on the briefings at the bottom of this article.  I originally wrote an article on these briefings a year earlier in the Dominion.

The PowerPoint on Canada’s Spying on Brazil’s Ministry of Mines and Energy that was revealed by TV Globo has been republished here.

Government rolls out new Access to Information requests tools

I recently became aware of two new tools that were rolled out by the Canadian Government related to Access to Information request. One is a tool to search Completed Access to information requests and the other is a way to file Access to Information requests online

In April, I created my own tool to search completed Access to Information request but the government tool is much more robust and replaces any need for the one I created.

The tool allows you search completed Access to Information requests completed in 2012 and 2013. It searches 50 out of about 170 Institutions that are subject to Access to Information legislation, however it seems to cover the most important government departments, as well as bodies like Canada Post and the CBC. A list of institutions on the left hand side of screen allows you to filter your search to only the in institutions which you click on. And each result includes links to the contact information for the department so that you can request copies of the information provided in each competed request (it is free). It will be particularly useful when researching specific topics to get a quick sense of what requests have already been filed and easily get my hands on the documents. There is also a link on the page that allows you to download a list of the summaries of all completed Access to Information (right now just for Spring 2013).

The other tool is a way to file access requests online. Up until now Access to Information requests had to be filed and paid for through the post. But it seems that the government is trying out a system to file request online. At present you can only file online with three departments: Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Shared Services Canada, and Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS). I imagine that they are testing it out now and may phase in other department overtime, if the system works for them.

I filed a request to test it out, and found the system fairly straight forward and simple. It basically consisted of filling out a series of web forms. Mostly I was prompted to provide the same information I provide in a letter, but I also had to indicate whether I was a Canadian Citizen, Permanent resident, or business; If I was requesting on my own behalf or on behalf of someone else;  the format I wish to receive the documents in; and whether I am media, business, academia, an organization, or member of the public. The other major difference is that unlike with a letter I needed to provide ID to show I am a Canadian Citizen / Resident.

On the whole I am impressed with both these tool, they are useful, display well, and are easy to use.  I am pleasantly surprised by this effort by government to make public records more accessible.

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