Canada’s spy agency used to be so secret that Canadians didn’t even know that it existed until a TV newsmagazine uncovered it in the 1970s. Even then, CSEC was hardly a household name. And they liked it that way.
Now it is hard to avoid. Communications Security Establishment Canada has become conspicuous as it moves into its hulking new billion-dollar building in Ottawa, the most expensive in Canadian history. CSEC is also becoming evident as the inner workings of the spy agency are revealed. While its gleaming new building is imposing, its intrusion into the privacy of ordinary Canadians is sinister and illegal.
It had languished for a while but since Sept. 11, 2001, CSEC is revitalized with a half-billion-dollar annual budget and staff of more than 2,000. Sure, CSEC can legally monitor foreign email, phone conversations, and other electronic communications, but spying on Canadians is not allowed except where communications are with foreigners.
CSEC has very little oversight and shows scant evidence that we are getting our money’s worth. In one case, it failed to stop high school friends, Xris Katsiroubas and Ali Medlej, from London, Ont., from leading a terrorist attack on a gas plant in Algeria.
Setting aside its dubious claim that our tax dollars actually reduce terrorism, let’s look at what CSEC is actually doing.
Documents released by Edward Snowden, whistleblower on the U.S. spy agency NSA, reveal that CSEC may have invited NSA to spy on Canadians and world leaders at the G20 summit at Toronto in 2010.
We know what can happen to Canadians when such “intelligence” is shared. U.S. officials sized Maher Arar in 2002 as he was returning from vacation and sent him to Syria to be tortured based on incorrect information supplied by the RCMP.
The B.C. Civil Liberties Association has filed a lawsuit against CSEC arguing that the spy agency violates the Charter of Rights, which protects against unreasonable interception of private communications.
The association also argues that the agency’s sweeping collection of personal information, or metadata, is unconstitutional. Records obtained by The Globe and Mail show that in 2004 a “ministerial directive and a ministerial authorization” permitted the collection of metadata information from Canadians.
A lawyer for the BCCLA warns: “This kind of wholesale surveillance is fundamentally incompatible with Canadian law. Metadata information can reveal the most intimate details of Canadian’s personal lives, including relationships, political and personal beliefs. The majority of Canadians use the Internet and telecommunications on a daily basis, and we should be able to do so without the government snooping on our personal information and monitoring our behaviour online.”
Nonchalant Canadians may wonder what the fuss is about: “If I’m doing nothing wrong, why should I worry?” But let’s turn that logic around. If that’s true for ordinary Canadians then it’s true for governments. If CSEC is operating within the law, its operations should be transparent and open.
Intrusive governments present a false dichotomy: chose between privacy or safety. We are told that in order to catch criminals we must allow sweeping intrusion. But we have yet to see compelling evidence that compromise of civil liberties is necessary in achieving that goal.