Compliance Management, Network Security, Privacy

Spy agency gathering information on Canadian citizens

Communications Security Establishment Canada, which intercepts foreign communications and also protects Canadian government computer systems, is using information about Canadians to help in the acquisition of foreign intelligence after recent changes in its policy.

The CSEC is monitored by the Office of the Communications Security Establishment Commissioner, a watchdog that issues an annual report. In its latest document, given to parliament on June 20, it said:

"When other means have been exhausted, CSEC may use information about Canadians when it has reasonable grounds to believe that using this information may assist in identifying and obtaining foreign intelligence."

This kind of information can be gathered without ministerial approval, because it does not require direct interception of communications, the report said. This suggests the use of metadata – information gathered indirectly.

The CSEC previously stopped its activities in this area following a review, and made unspecified changes to its processes. This report is the first review since the CSEC's chief allowed the practice to resume of using information about Canadians in foreign intelligence-gathering.

The report said that the agency was operating within the law and that no complaints worth investigating had been received in the last year.

However, the watchdog has suffered setbacks that have made it difficult to complete its duties. At $1.6m, its expenditure is miniscule next to the CSEC's $330m budget. The death of a previous commissioner in 2009 limited the organisation's abilities to file reviews and annual reports. Finally, Robert Decary, the current commissioner,   calls for the elimination of "ambiguities noted by my predecessors and myself in the National Defence Act" that make it difficult for the watchdog to complete its review.

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