Unitarian-Universalists covenant to affirm and promote "the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large" - our fifth principle.

Pervasive surveillance is the routine processing or storage of information about large numbers of citizens, in the absence of any probable cause to believe that they have broken the law. It has been revealed in the last few months that the governments of some democracies, including Canada, engage in pervasive surveillance or at least claim the right to do so.

A group of First Unitarian Toronto members feels that U-Us should speak out about this issue. We have drafted a Resolution on Pervasive Surveillance for consideration at a Toronto First congregational meeting and at the May, 2014 Canadian Unitarian Council Conference and Meeting.

Pervasive surveillance poses a danger to the democratic process. The knowledge that all communications are being monitored by the government has a chilling effect on freedom of association and the free interchange of ideas about political, social, and religious issues.

UUs should be especially concerned about this government activity. Not only it is in conflict with our fifth principle, but our congregations are the spiritual home for many people who support causes that are seen by some authorities as dangerous or subversive. Pervasive surveillance could have a direct effect on those people.

The resolution will be discussed at a meeting on Sunday, March 30, at 12:15 PM. Please attend and give your opinions!

Background

Over the last few months, the news media have revealed that the U.S. government (NSA) is routinely storing huge quantities of ordinary citizens' telephone and Internet metadata. Then in January, public statements by its Canadian counterpart (CSEC) and the Minister of Defence made it clear that our government believes that it too is legally authorized to collect metadata:

Metadata is "data about data". For example, it has been reported that the NSA is recording the date, time, caller's phone number, recipient's phone number, and call duration for virtually every telephone call made in the U.S.A. In the case of cell phones or wireless devices, the metadata may include information such as the user's geographical location and the web sites which she visits. Here are two videos which explain how metadata reveals personal information:

Last year, it was revealed that the National Security Agency (NSA) in the U.S.A. had been secretly making a permanent record of the metadata of almost every telephone call in the U.S.A. This news caused shock and outrage in the U.S.A.

In January, the CBC aired a program which revealed that the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) had tested software to analyze a huge database of metadata from wireless Internet devices in order to track "targets" found at a Canadian airport. While this does not prove that an ongoing pervasive surveillance program was being carried out, it certainly suggests it.

What was more revealing was the government's response to the CBC story. CSEC responded by publicly stating its " ... activities, including the collection and analysis of metadata, are authorized under the National Defence Act ... " When the Minister of Defence was asked in Parliament to " ... acknowledge that tracking the locations of Canadians by CSEC is against the law? ... at least acknowledge it is wrong?" he did not reply to the question.

Regardless of the significance of the CBC revelation, CSEC has publicly claimed the right to collect communications metadata, and the government appears to agree.

The wholesale collection of metadata has been defended with statements like "no one is listening in to your telephone calls" or "no one is reading your email". These statements ignore the reality that in the digital age, metadata reveals a wealth of sensitive personal information. This is discussed in a report by the ACLU of Northern California.

It has also been defended by the motto "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear". That assertion rings hollow for some U-Us who were the target of surveillance during the Vietnam era. First Unitarian of Los Angeles is taking legal action against the NSA based in part on the experiences of its members from that time.