05/02/2014 02:44 EDT | Updated 07/02/2014 05:59 EDT

State surveillance under microscope

Canada's interim privacy commissioner Chantal Bernier has called for a revamp of federal privacy laws that would require telecom firms to tell Canadians how many requests for data on private citizens they handle from federal enforcement bodies.

Her request to a Senate committee followed revelations that  nine telecommunication companies field 1.2 million requests for private customer information every year and raises the issue of how extensively federal agencies are monitoring Canadian citizens.

The revelations come on the heels of Edward Snowden’s documents showing that the phone calls of American citizens were under widespread surveillance by the CIA and National Security Agency. The U.S. whistleblower also revealed a vast network of Canadian spying on behalf of the NSA.

The issue raises the spectre of a world where there is no such thing as privacy and begs the question of how far democratic countries will go in becoming surveillance states.

Yet, apart from criticism from NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, who called Ottawa’s requests for private data “an abomination,” there has been very little public outrage over the news that the federal government made requests for information on more than a million Canadians.

Glenn Greenwald, the former Guardian columnist who exposed the Snowden documents to the world, argues that all modern democracies, including Canada and the U.S., are already surveillance states.

“It’s not this reasonable discriminating system that targets terrorists, it is instead a system of suspicion and surveillance that puts entire populations – hundreds of millions of people who have done nothing wrong – under a microscope and monitors and analyzes their communications,” he said in an interview with CBC Radio’s Q current affairs show.

Greenwald argues that fundamental freedoms, including opportunities for political activism and legitimate dissent, are under threat because of state surveillance.

“It is only when we can communicate without government eyes cast upon us that we can act with dissent or creativity or what it means to be a free individual,” he said.

Greenwald was in Toronto Friday for the Munk Debate on the controversial topic of state surveillance. The debate, set for Friday evening, is set to examine the balance between the kind of spying that keeps citizens secure and the kind of surveillance that infringes on individual liberty.

Michael Hayden, a retired four-star general and former director of both the CIA and the NSA, is also set to join that debate. He told Q there is no mass surveillance of the American people, but only legitimate listening in on conversations that might lead to a security threat.

 “Let me point out – all nations conduct espionage – they’re actually pretty good at it,” Hayden said, pointing out that the NSA was established in 1952.

But spying thrives in secret, he said, while the world is “moving into a political culture that is very uncomfortable with anything being beyond the view of everybody.”

This has led to questions such as whether the U.S. should conduct espionage as a legitimate state activity.

Hayden argues the state has a responsibility to conduct surveillance to protect “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” three core values of the American constitution. He raises incidents such as the Boston Marathon bombing to point out the role of surveillance of communications.

“We’re targeting someone overseas who's a legitimate intelligence target and talks to a U.S. person, NSA has every right to target that conversation,” he said.

Government agencies attempt to strike a balance between privacy and security, he said, pointing out that two presidents, Congress and the court system have all overseen the monitoring of U.S. phone calls that Snowden revealed.

Greenwald said state surveillance can be legitimate, but he believes both Canada and the U.S. have gone too far.

“Everyone wants governments listening in on people who are doing wrong,” Greenwald said.

“A surveillance state, by contrast, is a society which decrees that there is no such thing as individual privacy, that all communications that take place by and between other human beings are the business of the state – that the state both can and should invade those communications at will.”

People say, “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you should have nothing to hide,” Greenwald said, but he points out that everyone has areas of their life they want to keep private.

He urges people to probe the practices of federal agencies and demand a measure of privacy.

Greenwald will be a guest on CBC's The Lang & O'Leary Exchange Friday at 7 p.m. ET on CBC News Network.