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How far does secret government surveillance go?

Montreal, November 8, 2016 – The scandal surrounding the electronic surveillance of several journalists in Quebec shines a light on a troubling reality. The phenomenon of police surveillance does not only affect members of the media, but threatens the privacy of everyone, as shown in an Economic Note published today by the MEI.

Since the revelations by famous whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013, we know that practically all online communications are now intercepted by governments. The RCMP has decrypted approximately a million private messages from BlackBerry smartphones, and the number of communications intercepted was multiplied by 26 in 2015, without the authorities revealing any reasons for this.

“All of these revelations shatter the widespread prejudice according to which companies are less respectful of privacy than governments are,” says Mathieu Bédard, Economist at the MEI and author of the publication. “Internet giants have permanent access to some of our personal data, but the threat of abuse always comes from governments, which are a much greater threat to our privacy than companies are.”

Indeed, several safeguards exist to delimit the business practices of companies:

  • • They operate on the principle of consent: On social networks and smartphones, consumers can choose their own privacy settings.
  • Consumers can deactivate location tracking features, or refuse to use a credit card online, but governments, in contrast, do not give you a choice.
  • Competition among companies forces them to respond appropriately to consumer demand in order to avoid being publicly denounced.
  • It is much more profitable for a company to hold onto the information it collects than to sell it.

“And yet, privacy protection laws are stricter for companies than for governments,” notes Mr. Bédard. “If governments want to modernize privacy protection laws, they should first of all target government practices that limit individuals’ control over their own sharing of information. They should also make the collection and sharing of data by government agencies more transparent,” concludes the author.

The Economic Note entitled “Which Is the Greater Threat to Privacy, Business or Government?” was prepared by Mathieu Bédard, Economist at the MEI. This publication is available on our website.

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The Montreal Economic Institute is an independent, non-partisan, not-for-profit research and educational organization. Through its studies and its conferences, the MEI stimulates debate on public policies in Quebec and across Canada by proposing wealth-creating reforms based on market mechanisms.

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Interview requests: Pascale Déry, Senior Advisor, Communications, Current Affairs, MEI / Tel.: 514-273-0969 ext. 2233 / Cell.: 514-502-6757 / Email: pdery@iedm.org

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