Canadian Government Figured Out You’re Gay, and All It Had To Do Was Secretly Track Your Internet Use

Fictional Person Amanda is seventeen years old and in her second trimester of pregnancy. Scared of her parents’ reaction, she’s keeping her pregnancy a secret. But Target, where Amanda went to buy zinc and magnesium supplements the week before, knows everything. When she finds diaper coupons among the usual food and clothing ones, Fictional Person Amanda saves them for a later date, innocent of the fact that Target is an expert on the inner workings of her uterus.

In a fascinating New York Times piece, it’s explained how the “predictive analytics” units of major corporations and retailers can easily gather the bits and pieces of not only your consumer habits but your personal life floating around on the internet so as to effectively market to you. Target can compile data on your ethnicity, job history, marital history, and even your pregnancy status. As a regular recipient of Gmail and Facebook ads for dog food and gay cruises, I’m well aware that companies are trying to make money off my personal information. While it’s a little creepy but expected that Target will try to use my private information to market to me, I hold the Canadian government to much higher standards.

This is why it’s disappointing that in the latest move from Canada the country to Canada Corp. Ltd (CEO: Harper), the government displayed a personal information ethic no better than Target’s. Minister Jason Kenney profiled Canadians according to sexuality and then marketed government propaganda to gay citizens. Like a grocery chain marketing junk food as healthy, he sent an email extolling the virtues of nutrient-free, Canada Ltd.

Jason Kenney via cbc.ca

Titled “LGBT Refugees from Iran,” the email, sent on Friday, is about how Kenney, as the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration, and Multiculturalism, is proud of Canada’s treatment of LGBT refugees. He wrote that he believes “Canada should always be a place of refuge for those who truly need our protection.” I wholeheartedly agree, which is why I don’t support Kenney. Since the Conservatives won a majority in May of 2011, the minister has transformed this country’s refugee and immigration policy, and not for the better:  he has restricted refugee claimants’ health benefits, tightened spousal sponsorship rules, and even  deported an American war resister. He has also given employers more power in selecting immigration applicants; and as part of the infamous Omnibus Bill-38 made changes to the Temporary Foreign Workers Program that will allow employers to pay migrant workers 15% less than minimum wage. Lest this move lead you to believe that Kenney is against all types of immigration, you should know that he may have granted Conrad Black, a convicted criminal who renounced his Canadian citizenship in order to claim nobility status in the UK, a temporary residence permit. Datejie Green, one of the many recipients of Kenney’s email, pointed out that the government is trying to pinkwash its activities by making them seem LGBT friendly, when really, reforms such as refugee health cuts have a direct impact on gay and lesbian refugees who are often in need of trauma care and basic medical assistance.

Kimberly Rivera, the first female Iraq war resister. via The Canadian Press

Many who opened their inboxes to the surprise email from Kenney weren’t only angry at the message’s false political advertising. They also wondered how the Minister could possibly know their sexual orientation. They were creeped out.  Meredith Richmond of Peterborough was not one to pine for a private Gchat with Kenney — quite the opposite. She had never supported the Conservatives and wondered how the Minister had gotten her personal Gmail address along with information on her sexual orientation. Little did she know that when she signed a 2011 petition on Change.org supporting a gay artist from Nicaragua facing deportation, a form letter with her reply email address was sent to Kenney’s office, where a program saved her and others’ information for later use.

A spokesperson for the privacy commissioner’s office has called the event troubling but says there’s not much that can be done. Though political parties gather enormous amounts of highly personal information about citizens, Canadians have no legal rights when it comes to information amassed by parties and held in databases for partisan use; nor is it illegal for corporations to compile your information.

“Security Camera 3” still life painting, Gerard Boersma

Some may argue that with everyone’s information floating around, the personal information of one single person hardly rings any alarms. Yes, we are putting a lot of information out there, but so is everyone else. It’s as though everyone’s information creates all this noise which takes the focus off of individuals. With all the Facebooks, Twitters, and Tumblrs, have we crossed the threshold of the visible into the post-visible, or invisible? The greater the number of people who put their information out there, the less it will be seen, ironically.

But anonymity is a privilege dependent on circumstance. Anywhere besides an A-Camp-like environment, a heterosexual couple holding hands has the privilege of anonymity while a same-sex couple doing the exact same thing is made to be hyper-visible. Depending on their city, their class, and their ethnicity, the individuals in the lesbian or gay couple could even be in danger.

Just like in real life, being a minority activist on the internet, be it a gay activist or a feminist activist, makes you stand out, and standing out as a minority can have consequences. Like the Canadians who signed the petition from which Kenney pulled his information, it’s brave to tie your name to a cause most people don’t know or care about, but it’s also a risk. Many queer people have a lot to lose if knowledge of their internet activity falls into the wrong hands. While being gay on the internet has obvious and wonderful advantages, like realizing you’re not the only weirdo gay nerd on the planet, it doesn’t change the fact that when it comes to privilege,  you’re at a disadvantage.  This is why a queer person’s loss of internet anonymity has the potential to have significantly more dangerous consequences than that of a straight person’s.  In a hostile environment, you could get kicked out of your house or even have your life put at risk. And even if the people around you are supportive and wonderful, society at large is not, so it’s understandable to feel uncomfortable, if, as a gay person, knowledge of your queer internet activism falls  into unexpected hands (like, say, Jason Kenney’s) to be then  used for propaganda you don’t agree with. Even though (as far as I know) none of the email recipients were put in danger, Minister Jason Kenney of Canada Corp. Ltd needs to understand you just don’t mess around with the privacy of queers on the internet.

Malaika likes books, drinking tea, long conversations, dinner parties, making funny faces, bike rides, and dogs. Originally from Edmonton, she now lives in Montreal where she edits, runs, and writes about the Alberta Tar Sands for The Media Co-op. You can follow her on twitter @Malaika_Aleba.

Malaika has written 84 articles for us.

23 Comments

  1. I got that email and found it incredibly creepy. I had once written Jason Kenney a stern email and never heard back – then over a year later, I get this out of the blue. Also, I highly objected to the email’s salutation, “Friend.” Jason Kenney is a jerk and most definitely not my friend.

  2. I DIDN’T get that email and I feel like I’ve been left out–even though I know that if the Conservatives can track whether or not I’m queer they sure as hell can track my political history (which is decisively not Conservative).

  3. I’m sorry to say that I have never signed a petition in my whole life… and it is for this very reason.
    Selfish maybe, but you do what you can to protect yourself.

    Very interesting piece, Malaika, thanks for this.

  4. I got the email. I’m aware when I sign petitions that my email address (but not my mailing address) needs to be available to confirm that I’m not a bot so I’m down with that. I find it disturbing that he’s targeting queer petitions to harvest names and info because I don’t trust what else he wants that info for, since he is against queer rights. However, I am a child of the internet and so it doesn’t *shock* me that those info routes exist and that politicians take advantage of them. Mostly I am pissed off that he is a giant HYPOCRITE who wants to take my rights away with one hand and send me an email entitled Friend with the other. If you’re going to hate on me, at least do it with both hands, you jerk. Now I can go to one of his rallies and hold a sign that says IM GAY AND JASON KENNEY SENT ME AN EMAIL CALLING ME A POLITICAL FRIEND and that might do him some damage. You know? In conclusion: What a toad.

  5. This is Canada, there is no reason you should feel a need to disguise your sexuality here, because BY LAW no one is allowed to discriminate against you for it. We have FEDERAL “hate crime” laws here that actually OVERRIDE constitutional rights – unlike the wishy washy stuff you’ve got in the states.

    Please explain what the “consequences for being a minority” there are in Canada.

    While this minister is a dirtball – and I 100% agree with your assessment of him and the PC party, your interpretation (EXTREME PARANOIA) about your sexual orientation is just kind of sad, Canada is gay friendly.

    • As a fellow Canadian and Kristen I just want to say I AM SO HAPPY THAT YOU FEEL THAT WAY. I’ve lived in two of the queer-friendliest Canadian cities in my lifetime and I can’t be 100% out all of the time. Because you know what? Sometimes you get spat at on the street when you’re walking in the country’s largest GAYBOURHOOD and all you can do is gasp. I know that employers aren’t “allowed” to discriminate against your sexual orientation, but that doesn’t stop them from Googling you and dismissing your resume. People are prejudiced and unfortunately it’s pretty easy to hide. I know we’re leaps and bounds beyond MANY countries in that regard, but I wouldn’t write off this ponderance as extreme paranoia.

    • As a gay Canadian, I’m very happy that we have federal hate crime laws but unfortunately even in Canada there are no laws protecting you from getting kicked out of your home if your homophobic parents do some googling and find your name connected to something gay on the internet.

      • +1 Malaika. I have friends who can’t be on Facebook and other social networks, because they’re too afraid of people posting photos or updates and their parents seeing them. I also know people who have to use pseudonyms for queer activist work for the same reason.

        Also, I live in the largest city in Canada – where the mayor is too afraid to attend Pride events and says things like, “What is a transgender? I don’t get it” and “If you’re not gay and doing drugs, you won’t get AIDs, probably.”

        We definitely have it way better than many countries, but it’s not perfect.

    • I’ve walked down Church St. with straight female friends, and been shouted at by young men in pickup trucks from the suburbs. I’ve gotten the same waiting for the TTC, goons shouting “DYKE!” at the top of their lungs.

      I’ve got family who think I’m asking for trouble if I stand too close to my girlfriend because I shouldn’t be “flaunting that gay thing”. A friend sent me a pic of her friend in a hospital bed after he’d gotten jumped for “looking gay” in northern Ontario.

      These things aren’t paranoia, they’re just part of what it’s like to be queer and dare to look like it in public in Canada.

      Sure, we can get married and we’ve got laws to protect us, but the real victory will come when we don’t need hate laws because we’re just people instead of a “special interest group” to be reviled.

  6. I am not Canadian, however I have a few things to say about internet privacy. First of all, there are a lot of sites out there, including Autostraddle, that don’t utilize a more secure protocol such as https, what https sites do, is encrpyt your sensitive information, so it cannot be “sniffed” out by other means. Many banks use the https protocol. Also, gmail actually has an https version, which is an option in your settings and I highly recommend that you use it. The next time you use gmail, type in https instead of http and you will see a little secure icon in the url address bar. There are also more activist centered email alternatives out there, that will not sell your information like the bigger companies, such as Google and have been used by anarchists and activists alike. There are also other search engines out there that don’t track you, unlike google and bigger companies. If you are really concerned about your privacy, then I would suggest using a VPN (Virtual Private Network), this allows you to use the internet, by masking your IP address, as well as encrptying all your information that you send out, etc. Another thing, is having cookies enabled, some of these cookies are malacious and store important information from your computer based on the sites you visit, which is why you see ad’s geared toward sites you have recently visited. Many web browsers give tou the option to browse privately, which people should use along with the alternatives I mentioned. In any event, one day I got curious about all this stuff and did some research of my own. I am still learning, but it is amazing how much information is being tracked and used or can be used in malacious ways. That old cliche saying, “Knowledge is power,” fits in this particular context. Do not depend on the government or governments to protect you, as they have bad track records, imo. Arm yourself with knowlegde and self-sufficiency.

      • No problem! This is going to be a little lengthy, so apologies in advance, but I feel it needs to be said.

        Autostraddle really needs an “open thread” on internet privacy. It is really scary to me that people actually use their real names on Facebook, not realizing how easy it is to compromise their information. I could easily make up some fake name, add people as friends, gain information, steal pictures and then use it maliciously without you even knowing it, for my own agenda. This brings me to another point (and I have many), it is so easy to bully people this way, whether through propaganda, or “sunning” them (recent Autostraddle article), or by any other means.

        Here are some things I’ve learned over the past few months, just doing my own privacy research…

        Point 1:
        Facebook and other social networks are not that secure, especially when you start using real information (your real name, birth date, pictures, etc). People want to bitch about how awful these companies are, but it really falls on the user. Self-protection relies on you, not companies trying to exploit your information for their business model, stocks, etc. If you are on vacation, you shouldn’t be posting pictures of where you are at, until AFTER you get home. Why? People/criminals now know you are out of town, which leaves them access to your home. Also, with Google Maps and “street view,” it becomes REAL easy to get to you. It boggles my mind, how so many people have “no fucks to give” until it’s too late, or it has affected them personally.

        Point 2:
        Cell phones. Now that the internet is so readily available on cell phones, they are also susceptible to the same vulnerabilities as your computer. I know that for the iPhone, if you go into your Settings > Safari > Private Browsing, you’ll be able to browse privately. The internet browser UI (user interface) will be black, instead of blue. There are also VPN options out there for your cell phone, if you want encryption and more privacy.

        Point 3:
        Other alternatives. A great website called http://www.advocacy.org, informs people about what they can do to protect themselves with regards to free speech and other issues. One article in particular that would be of interest to Autostraddle, or people who use WordPress, is this one here: http://advocacy.globalvoicesonline.org/projects/guide/#writingPC.

        A.) As for emailing, https://help.riseup.net/en, is a great site and alternative to Google Mail, it says the following on their homepage header, “Riseup provides online communication tools for people and groups working on liberatory social change. We are a project to create democratic alternatives and practice self-determination by controlling our own secure means of communications.” They have more information about their philosophy in the “About Us” section. Tired of all the spam in your email inbox (which is based on cookies, scripts and other malicious trackers)? Then there is also, http://mailinator.com. More info here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mailinator.

        B.) Search engines. If you want more privacy with your search engines (ie: Not Google search, Yahoo! search, etc) and don’t want all these third parties tracking your every move, try https://www.ixquick.com/. It’s a search engine that’s private. You can find more information here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ixquick, here https://www.ixquick.com/eng/press/ixquick-privacy-gets-better.html and here https://www.ixquick.com/eng/protect-privacy.html.

        Lastly, if you think free Wi-fi is a great thing, it’s not. More and more businesses, such as Starbucks, Denny’s, McDonalds, airports, hotels, are offering free Wi-fi. A lot of times these are HIGHLY vulnerable, with little to no security measures. Stuck in an airport terminal after finishing A-Camp and want to try out the free Wi-fi? I’d be VERY hesitant. There could be someone sitting next to you with a program, waiting for you to log-in to your Facebook account, bank account and so forth, so they can have access to your information on the non-secure, “free Wi-fi,” that you just logged into. There is a neat device called Surf Easy, that is literally a “plug and play” usb device, that provides VPN encryption. In layman terms, you have your own private internet in your wallet or pocket. You can find more information about Surf Easy, here: https://www.surfeasy.com/. If you are traveling abroad, or want to use the free Wi-fi, you can use Surf Easy, it’s literally credit card size, fits in your wallet and then the little usb stick slides out, ready to go, for you to use at Starbucks, home, or wherever you are.

        I know a lot of people may think, “ZOMG paranoid much? I HAVE NOTHING TO HIDE!” It’s really not about hiding and more about protecting yourself (the people around you), protecting your information and being smart, while having common sense. When people compromise your information online, they can go further and compromise you physically too, or your family, etc. Even physically (reality-wise), I don’t think people do enough to protect themselves. Case in point, those family stickers people have on their car/van/truck with the mom, dad, 2 girls, 1 boy, 1 dog and cat (or any other variety), may seem cute at first, but it’s a vulnerability. All someone has to do, is follow you home. Now someone knows that your family consists of two girls, a boy, dog, cat and “mom and dad.” So then, you follow the kids to their school, ask them about their cat or dog, (hell some of these stickers even have their names on them!), then bam, another child abduction, or something awful happening. I also never understood parents who post their kids faces online. There is so much stuff that people don’t think about, while blindly telling everyone and everything all their information, as if it is no big deal.

        In any event, I’m a private person, I’m not someone who likes all my information out there for the public’s disposal and I’m also someone who loves my freedom and does not like it compromised in any way, so I have a hyper awareness to these things and I’m a pretty keen observer to boot. It’s ok to be “proud,” of who you are, but it’s another thing to boast about it, while giving up valuable information about yourself. Sometimes it’s a very fine line that’s hard to navigate, so you have to figure out what’s important to you and what you are willing to compromise and at what costs and or benefits. I am by no means an expert at this stuff, but I try to empower myself with as much knowledge as possible, for my own personal development. Anyways, that’s my “Surgeon Generals Warning” of the day.

        • antiant,

          It’s a few days after this article and your comments were posted, but in case you see this: thank you, thank you, thankyousomuch. Most of my friends think I’m too paranoid about the way I share – and don’t share – information online, but truthfully my opinion’s basically the same as yours. (I especially love the sound of SurfEasy!)

          Also if you see this: I’m guessing you’ve probably heard of the DuckDuckGo search engine (http://duckduckgo.com/) – do you have an opinion on it? Would love to hear it if you do (their about page is at http://duckduckgo.com/about.html, in case you’d like to give it a look and haven’t already).

    • if you’re supersuperparanoid, you can also use a program like tor, which basically keeps all your internet browsing anonymous. the websites you visit can’t get your personal information, and anyone watching what you’re doing can’t see what sites you’re going on. stick it on a usb and no-one’s going to be finding out what you do online.

      tbh i just use it to go on facebook at school

      • Yeah, I know about Tor, it’s too slow though and there are better options out there, but it’s better than nothing, I suppose. I personally use Surf Easy, it’s awesome and has many security and privacy features, which can also override your work’s network, school, etc. It’s really not about paranoia for me, but more so about common sense, the principles of freedom, self-protection, self-sufficiency and so forth. People trust too easily, then shit happens and it’s too late to “re-write” history/herstory, so then people play the “Woulda, coulda, shoulda” game and the cycle repeats. I wrote more above, but it’s awaiting moderation, due to it’s essay length response… -_-

  7. I had a conservative state rep get my email because I’m on Jeff Merkley’s email list (he used a sketchy FOIA request) and was sending out blatantly partisan bullshit about one of his committees. It was super creepy before I figured out how he got my email and then I quickly got off his email list.

  8. As somebody who has lived in a variety of ostensibly gay friendly cities in Canada, I can also say that I have experienced street harassment and attempted sexual assault due to my queerness (according to the perpetrators own words). Laws are great but Canada is not 100% perfect.

  9. “2011 petition on Change.org supporting a gay artist from Nicaragua facing deportation, a form letter with her reply email address was sent to Kenney’s office, where a program saved her and others’ information for later use.”

    OH HELL NAH. This has to be illegal, HAS to be. This is spam!

    http://fightspam.gc.ca/eic/site/030.nsf/eng/h_00039.html

    “sending of commercial electronic messages without the recipient’s consent (permission), including messages to email addresses and social networking accounts, and text messages sent to a cell phone;”

    “collection of electronic addresses by the use of computer programs or the use of such addresses, without permission (address harvesting).”

    Is it not clear that Kenney is actually breaking the Anti-Spam law by harvesting people’s email addresses without their consent? Should he not be punished for this? If I received this email, I’d be looking to take legal action.

  10. They got her email address because she had signed a petition that was related to LGBT rights; and then he sent an email that was LGBT related. It’s not that they are tracking sexuality, as you don’t have to be LGBT to sign a LGBT rights petition. You probably only have to be interested in LGBT rights to sign the petition and therefore get related propaganda. Government isn’t tracking your sexuality, only that you’ve expressed interests in those matters and have signed your name and email address to identify that you are.
    The article writer has made it sound like they have a database on who is LGBT and who isn’t; when in actual fact, they have a database on who has submitted their name, email, and expressed interest in LGBT rights. The two are quite different.
    There is no “secretly tracking your internet usage”, when signing a petition you freely give that information. There is, yes, shady dealings in then turning around and using that information to spread propaganda, but to say that they have a database on who is queer and who isn’t, tracking your internet usage – well, that’s just plain fear mongering.

  11. Hey, there’s no mention of a specific database of “who is lgbt and who isn’t” in the article. But if you click on the article I linked to , you can read about how the government does hold a lot of our personal information in databases, and there’s not much we can do about it. And I agree – they’re not tracking your sexuality. If you read the article carefully you’ll see that the only time the word “track” was mentioned was in the title, which unfortunately I didn’t come up with, so I’m sorry if that was misleading. Hope that clears things up.

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!