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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An Overdue Update

It has been a several weeks since I have updated this blog and I wanted to write a brief update on some of the work I have been up to.
1) In June, I went to San Antonio Texas to attend the annual Investigative Reporters and Editors Conference. I have been to this conference a few times before but it always knocks my socks off, and this time was no exception.  I picked up a ton of new skills, met amazing reporters, and left incredibly inspired. I learned a lot of new data journalism skills and I currently have some exciting data based stories in the works.
A big thank you to everyone who donated to support my journalism as it allowed me to attend this amazing conference.
2) Shortly after returning from Texas I began covering Swamp Line 9. This was a camp that a group of activists set up at an Enbridge facility in order to block construction that would allow the pipeline company to reverse the flow of an existing pipeline, “Line 9”, in order to bring Oil east from Sarnia to Montreal.
I started with a story covering a solidarity action that happened in Toronto, and then biked out to the encampment which was located in a rural area outside Hamilton.  I was invited by the activists to spend the night, and the next morning I was woken at 7am by someone telling me that the police had arrived. Although people were being arrested all around me, I somehow avoided arrest and made my way to a baseball diamond across the street where I could observe the arrests and began working on my article. Later the police noticed me I had to move behind the media cordon, where I was interviewed by CBC and CHCH due to my access to the site durring the arrests.
Although I have covered protests in the past, most of my reporting is investigative work that take place on the phone, a laptop, or pouring through records. This is the closest been to conflict reporting. I have friends who travelled to Honduras during the coup, or have snuck into Syria to do reporting, I am a bit awe of them for doing that. But for me this is the first time I had to tackle that balance between getting close to the action and staying safe.
3) One of the major focuses of my reporting has been looking at the intelligence gathering the state used in response to protest by First Nation groups. Two weeks ago I published a story that covers this from a different angle. It explores CSIS’ efforts to drastically boost the number of Aboriginal recruits, and the spy service’s reaction to recruiters being confronted Six Nation’s Pow-wow. I published it in a local Six Nations paper, the web version of the story is here. I also posted CSIS’ 2012-2013 Marketing and Recruiting Plan online, here.
4) In 2002, I started the Missing Plaque Project, an initiative to put up posters on little known Toronto history right in the area where the history took place. I haven’t worked on the project for several years, but this summer I began making some new posters. If your interested to learn more I was interviewed for the CBC show How to do it. The show aired at 9:30 today, and will go to air again on Saturday at 11:30am, and audio is up on the site.
I am excited to have restarted this project and I will put some of the posters up on this blog soon.

Spies, the erosion of oversight, and their corporate pals

I wanted to highlight a couple of stories that I have had published since I wrote my last blog post a couple month ago. Both are stories that deal with Canada’s Spy agency, CSIS, and the oversight of this agency.

Who’s got their eyes on Canada’s spies? was published in Briarpatch Magazine in March. It examines oversight of the spy agency. It starts looking at Last year’s move by the Harper Government cut one of the two bodies involved in monitoring CSIS’s compliance with the law, the Inspector General. However the article also probes the effectiveness of   the remaining oversight body, the Security Intelligence Review Committee(SIRC).

The other story, Spies that Share was published in the Dominion April.  It shows that CSIS is bending the law in order to share intelligence with private sector companies, despite a law that does not allow this practise.

Although the crux of the story is looking at CSIS’ relationship with the private sector, it also explores the role of oversight bodies. SIRC’s role is make sure CSIS complies with the law, and noted in a report that this sharing is not allowed, it seems none-the-less content to allow this sharing to take place.

A former Chair of SIRC told me that the logic of the body is to “let sleeping dogs lie” and only tackle issues once a controversy arises. To me this seems a strange position for a body that role is probing an organization that works in secrecy, as scandalous behaviour may be going on with out the public being aware.

I was also interviewed about these two articles on Winnipeg community radio station, CKUW. You can listen to the stories here: http://ckuwnews.ca/full_segment/126

That is it for now, but I got some more spiesexciting projects in the works


Completed Access to Information Requests Search

I have create a search tool that allows you to search completed Access to Information Requests in several Government Departments.  I envision it being useful for looking up topics like “Enbridge” or “Windsor” both of which appear in requests from a range of departments. Once you have found the records that is of interest to you, write to the department holding the records asking for a copy along with the file number and they will send you a copy in the mail.

Try it out: Completed Access to Information Requests Search

The tool searches the completed requests from the following departments: Natural Resources, CRTC,  CBSA, RCMP, Aboriginal Affairs, Finance, Foreign Affairs, National Defence, Public Safety, PCO, CSIS, Health Canada, National Energy Board, Justice, Fisheries and Oceans, SIRC, Corrections, Immigration, and Treasury Board.

I would have loved to include more, but the freemium version of Googles Custom Search only allows you to search 20 sites at a time.*

These sites were picked based on assumptions of what might be most useful. I would have like to include others like Environment Canada and Transportation Canada, but the way those sites structure their URLs wouldn’t allow them to be searched in the Custom Search. The number of Departments is only 19, instead of 20. That is because I had to include privy councils 2012 and 2013 searches separately.

Last year I collaborated with some programmers on a more ambitious project that attempted to compile all completed requests. However the idea seems to have been too ambitious as it has it lost steam before it was finished being built.

The idea was to have a system that not only searched all the requests and nicely presented them, but to also have a bunch of interesting features, like a shopping cart that created letters to send to each department asking for records, and a platform to make notes and comments on requests, allowing requestors to dialogue with one another, and post links if copies of a record are ever posted online.

The search that I have now created is far from ideal, but it din’t take a lot of work to build, and  I believe that it will be useful.

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Can blind people file freedom of information requests?

An interesting question was recently posed to me during a workshop I was presenting on how to file Freedom of Information requests: “My daughter is blind, can she file freedom of information requests?” asked a woman in the crowd.

I didn’t know the answer. All of the records that I have ever received from my requests are in formats that would prevent a blind person from reading them. But would the law oblige the government to make records available in a usable format to people who can’t see?

As I began exploring the question, I realized that there are interesting implications that flow from it. For those us filing requests, the format we receive them in is largely at the whim of the government institution that is providing them to us. And if people who are blind are entitled to information in a more useful format, which I believe they are, they may in fact have more rights under freedom-of-information legislation than those who can see.

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Every jurisdiction will be slightly different, but I am going to focus this post on Canada’s federal Access to Information Act, the freedom of Information legislation I am most familiar with. This Act does oblige the government to provide records in an “alternative format” to people with “sensory disabilities”.

Section 12(3)(a) of the Access to Information Act reads:

“Where access to a record or a part thereof is to be given under this Act and the person to whom access is to be given has a sensory disability and requests that access be given in an alternative format, a copy of the record or part thereof shall be given to the person in an alternative format forthwith, if the record or part thereof already exists under the control of a government institution in an alternative format that is acceptable to that person.”

(12(3)(b) of the Act entitles people to records in an alternative format when they don’t already exist, however the institution can apply the cost for the conversion to an alternative format, and the institutions may make these costs prohibitive.)

The ability for those with sensory disabilities to receive records in a more useful format certainly exists in theory, but does it exist in practice? Those rights only exist if they are being exercised. Will government institutions actually follow through and provide information in these usable formats? So far in my research I have not come across any account of blind people filing requests. (If your our there I would love to hear about your experiences.)

Part of why I am writing this post is that I would like to spread the word that I am willing to provide assistance and support to blind people who are interested in filing requests, and putting the rights that are referred to in the legislation into practice, but more about that later.

When government institution deliver records as a result of a freedom of information request, they can come in different formats, some records are delivered as paper copies, others on CDs, and in a few cases I have even received them attached to an email. But even when records are delivered as electronic files (usually PDFs), they are not text-readable files. They are more like photos of all the words on the page. That means you can’t highlight the words, you can’t copy the text and paste it somewhere else, you can’t use Cmnd-F or Crtl-F to find text, and you can’t use a text-to-speech reader to listen to their contents.

A text-to-speech reader is the most common method for blind people to read a document. It is a device that allows you to navigate a computer, the Internet, and electronic documents by converting the text on a page into spoken words. The first time I sat down with someone using one of these devices I found it incredible how much they could do and read on a computer – But there are limitations, for example a text-to-speech reader can’t interpret photos, even if they are photos with words on them.

When I explain the problems that come from documents being released in a non-text-readable format, some people have a suggested a simple solution, to use Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software. This software looks at the words on a page and converts them into a text-readable version. However, (in the federal system), files are processed in a way where the original files are converted to the low resolution image files, which are then reconverted into a PDF before being released. For the departments processing the files this is beneficial because it mean they are dealing with the smallest possible files. But one of the implications of this is that it means files do not work well with OCR. In my experience the words often end up all jumbled and the conversion is far from accurate.

Although the Act entitles all people, regardless of if they can see, to records “in the format requested” under section 4.(2.1), another sections of the law allows for limitation in the format provided. And in practice records are rarely delivered in the requested format. This becomes quite clear when requesting data, rather than providing information in a spreadsheet format, most institutions convert the records into a print out and then release them as a PDF, without text that is recognized by a computer. If you want the information in a spreadsheet or databases, then you have a lot of data entry in store for you.

The fact that documents are released in a non-text readable format is not written into policy or law, but it is nonetheless a de facto mandate. This is due to the fact that that almost all federal departments use the same software to manage, redact, and release records. Although I am unfamiliar with the exact working of the program, I am told that in order to export files from the program for release to requestors, they are converted into the smallest possible image files, and then resaved as a PDF.

One of the explanations I have heard from those who work in government departments to explain why records are released as non-text-readable PDFs, is that they are concerned that computer hackers could find ways to peer behind the redactions to see exactly what had been blacked out.

By converting documents into image files that problem is certainly removed, but that doesn’t mean it is the only way to securely redact documents. Government was consulted on the creation of the software used to process requests, and I tend to believe that if they had requested the ability to securely redact documents while keeping them text-readable, that is what would have been created.

In order to allow those with sensory disabilities to file request, it is necessary for government institutions to acquired or developed a means to securely release records in a text-readable format. And one would think that if records could be released in this method for some requestors it could then they could be applied to all requestors.

In law those with sensory disabilities are entitled to records in a format that is “acceptable” to them, an entitlement that doesn’t exist for everyone else.

So does this mean that it may be advisable to hire a blind researcher over a seeing one? It remains to be determined. The law should entitle all requestors to records in a format of their choice. But in practice this doesn’t take place. So will requestors with sensory disabilities in fact be entitled to records “in an alternative format that is acceptable to that person?”

The government institution releasing the records is supposed to apply two tests. First, is releasing the records in an alternative format necessary?  This test may involve showing proof that the requestor is blind, and Second, is the request for an alternative format reasonable? Which may involve examining if a request is overly broad and voluminous.

One of my goals in writing this post is to determine if there are people out there who have made use of section 12(3)(a) or (b) of the Act.  I would love to hear from you.

I am also writing this post is to spread the word to that I am willing and interested in providing support and advice to blind people who want assistance in filing requests. I remember being quite nerve racked by the first half a dozen requests I ever filed, and the support and advice I got from others was invaluable. I would like to offer that same support to people who want to exercise this part of the law.  Giving advice, reading over draft letters, and answering the questions that come up along the way.  If your interested please email me at timgrovesreports [at] gmail [dot] com.

I am most familiar with the federal Access to Information Act, and I am hoping to support people in filing under this Act. If you are interested in filing under another set of legislation feel free to get in touch and I will see what sort of advice I can give.

Although, I am a seeing person, I am also in the process of trying to use 12(3)(a) of the Act in a handful of my own requests, adding the following wording in those request.

Although I would submit that all records should be released in the most accessible format possible, I will note that the Act entitles me to records in an accessible format. This is because as a journalist working in the public interest I often make selected records available to the general public to read and examine. To this extent when I request records I do so not only for myself but on behalf of the public at large, including members of the public with sensory disabilities.

Therefore, I ask that under Section 12(3)(a) of the Act that any records I have requested that already exists under the control of your institution in a text readable format, that will allow people who are blind to read them using a text-to-speech device, be release to me in that format. I trust you will uphold your duty to assist and will deliver these records to me in such a format, forthwith.

I am quite uncertain how this will be responded to this, and I am not holding my breath that I will receive the records in a text-readable format.  But I wanted to try this sort of request and see what response I get.  I am genuinely interested in making sure that people who are blind can read the records I publish online. I am also interested in the broader questions surrounding the format that records are delivered in, which concerns all requestors.

I hope that the questions that are raised by this blog post will put pressure on government to rethink the way things are done.