In a draft paper recently uploaded to the Social Science Research Network, entitled “Do Transparency Reports Matter for Public Policy? Evaluating the effectiveness of telecommunications transparency reports,” Dr. Christopher Parsons analyses the extent to which Canadian telecommunications companies’ transparency reports respond to a set of public policy goals set by civil society advocates, academics, and corporations. To date, Canadian transparency reports have focused on the number of times government agencies request data from telecommunications companies but tended to lack information that contextualizes the significance of these requests.

Parsons argues that corporate transparency reports are needed because government agencies are not legally required to disclose the full extent to which they conduct telecommunications-related surveillance. While government agencies could be forced, by a new law, to report on the extent of their surveillance it is unlikely that such reporting will be a political priority in the short-term. The current annual reports that governments do provide about their surveillance contain contradictory trend data about the extent of government agencies’ surveillance. And though federal courts have restricted some government surveillance activities, as seen in R. v. Spencer, those restrictions have not been accompanied by mandatory reporting requirements. Absent statutory reporting requirements, government agencies are recalcitrant to discuss their contemporary means of surveillance, the regularity at which they conduct much of their surveillance, or the number of persons affected by their surveillance activities. In effect, the public and legislators alike need insight into corporate policy and procedures for how personal information and private communications are disclosed to government in order to ascertain the appropriateness and scope of the government’s current surveillance practices.

The majority of transparency efforts from 2011-2014 sought to ‘prove a negative,’ to prove that little was actually known about the extent of state surveillance activities. Parsons argues that the release of four Canadian telecommunications companies’ transparency reports may herald a new chapter in understanding the extent of state surveillance because the reports provide more fulsome aggregate figures concerning government surveillance than government reports. These corporate reports are only somewhat effective in achieving policy goals developed by civil society organizations, academics, and corporations, however, namely: of contextualizing information about government surveillance actions, of legitimizing the corporate disclosure of data about government-mandated surveillance actions, and of deflecting or responding to telecommunications subscribers’ concerns about how their data is shared between companies and the government.

Parsons argues that telecommunications companies must standardize their reports across the industry and must also publish their lawful intercept handbooks for the reports to be more effective. Ultimately, citizens will only understand the full significance of the data published in telecommunications companies’ transparency when the current data contained in transparency reports is contextualized by the amount of data that each type of request can provide to government agencies and the corporate policies dictating the terms under which such requests are made and complied with.

Download the paper at SSRN (Alternate link)