Three months after the Boston Marathon tragedy put an entire city on lockdown, New York resident Michele Catalano was searching Google for information about pressure cookers. At around the same time, her husband was searching Google for information about backpacks.

Shortly thereafter, six armed men in plain clothes fanned out across her property, plunging suburban tranquility into frightened anxiety.  In one unforeseen instant, an otherwise typical Suffolk County home had become an encircled target, its two occupants a tactical bullseye. Less forthcoming were the details of exactly what was happenng and why.

As the ordeal seamlessly unfolded, badges were eventually flashed, identifying the six men as members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force.  The Task Force cut straight to the chase, inundating Michele Catalano and her husband with a hailstorm of confusing questions about their knowledge of explosives, the usefulness of pressure cookers, and the nature of their relationships with friends and family members.

After a 45-minute interrogation blitz, the Task Force was eventually satisfied the couple had no terrorist affiliations or intentions. The six agents, having found no cause to unholster their side-arms, presumably returned to their respective offices to sniff out the next suspicious address.  For Michele Catalano and her husband, the invasive ordeal so throughly displaced the privacy of their marital home that the couple’s unexpected encounter with an armed counter-terrorism Task Force undoubtedly left them feeling, well, terrorized.

The incident was initially reported as triggered by Google searches.  Later, authorities involved in the surprise investigation claimed they were responding to a tip-off from a former employer, who had been monitoring workplace internet activity.

Though the Catalano story has taken on a diverse complexion, it is a uniform reminder of a disturbing new reality:  we are being watched. You are being watched.  The internet can be used to secretly probe virtually every aspect of your private life, and the stateside organizations recently exposed for doing so have some intimate Canadian ties.

At the beginning of the Snowden saga, leaked details about the National Security Agency’s ‘PRISM’ mass surveillance program caused a geopolitical earthquake.  The NSA, it was revealed, has collected astronomical volumes

of private data through its Internet and cellular surveillance dragnet, and has extensive access to information collected by the world’s foremost software and social media giants.

What's the big picture?

The NSA has obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other U.S. internet giants … which allows officials to collect material including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats.”

– Ewen MacAskill, The Guardian

If you’re thinking “what have I got to be concerned about?”, or that this questionable snooping is more of a U.S. problem than a Canadian problem, think again.

Ronald Diebert, director of the University of Toronto Citizen’s Lab, said to the Toronto Star, “The way telecommunication traffic is routed in North America, the fact of the matter is about 90 per cent of Canadian traffic is routed through the United States.”

Canada’s internet traffic, Diebert continues, is subsumed through “filters and checkpoints, shared with third parties, with law enforcement and of course intelligence agencies that operate in the shadows.”

The Communications Security Establishment of Canada (CSEC), an intelligence agency virtually invisible in this country, has been in close cooperation with the U.S. National Security Agency for decades. Diebert described the two agencies as having a “long-standing historical relationship.”

“The NSA and CSEC … operate today as essentially twinned agencies.”

In the 1997 film Conspiracy Theory, Mel Gibson portrayed Jerry Fletcher, a neurotically obsessed individual who had come to believe government surveillance followed his every move.  By the end of the film [warning: spoiler ahead], Fletcher’s fidgety apprehension turned out to be justified, his suspicions not the mere shudderings of an unstable mind, but the terrified intuitions of a targeted individual.

Canadians, it would seem, have suddenly found themselves living a similar narrative.  Mass government surveillance, previously confined to the meandering conjecture of disturbed eccentrics, has become part of our every day lives, and a hot topic in mainstream discussions.

As the NSA builds its $2-billion Data Centre in the remote hills of Utah, and as CSEC builds its shiny new $880-million Headquarters in Ottawa, officials from both agencies continue to insist their surveillance activities are for national security purposes only, and do not represent a threat to the rights and freedoms of domestic citizens.

Ultimately, the true scope, nature, and ramifications of this year’s mass surveillance revelations are yet to be fully revealed. As the story unfolds, Eric Snowden is hunted by U.S. authorities, and Canadians are haunted by a disquieting thought:

Are these agencies working to protect Canada from the awesome threat of terrorism, or are they working to undermine the rights and freedoms that make Canada an awesome country worth protecting?

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