Canadian spies defend airport data collection

Canadian intelligence agency officials defended themselves at a Senate hearing early in February, after it was revealed that they had collected data on passengers travelling through Canadian airports via Wi-Fi access points.

According to a document provided by US NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden to the CBC, Canada's Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) spy agency captured data from free wireless access points at one of the country's major airports.

The data enabled CSEC to track visitors for days after they left the airport, the document revealed - and could also be used to 'travel back in time', by matching their device IDs with those found at hotels, mobile gateways, and other airports.

Stephen Rigby, national security advisor to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, argued that the collection of metadata had been proven to be legal. "I do believe that CSEC has behaved within its legal mandate," he told press at the Senate National Security and Defense Committee testimony, adding that its collection is reviewed annually by the CSEC commissioner.

CSEC chief John Forster argued that the test using passenger data did not run in real time, and that it wasn't used in an actual operation.

"CSE does not target Canadians, either at home or abroad, nor do we target anyone in Canada," he said, adding that if the agency engages in activities that may incidentally collect information about Canadians, it must obtain a warrant.

"CSE may risk the incidental collection of privacy communications of Canadians," he said. "We have no way of knowing in advance who our foreign targets may connect with.

CSIS's mandate directs it to avoid surveilling Canadian citizens. The domestic intelligence agency is the Canadian Intelligence Security Service (CSIS). The two agencies have begun working more closely together in recent times.

The head of CSIS, Michel Coulombe, also testified at the event to argue that the agency did not engage in mass surveillance of Canadians. "All warrants are directed against specific individuals that pose a threat to the security of Canada."

The day after the testimony, a motion by Liberal MP Wayne Easter was defeated in the House. The motion called for the passage of Bill C-551, introduced last fall, which attempt to create a parliamentary committee to oversee CSEC and CSIS.

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