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Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) director Michel Coulombe (L) and Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) chief John Forster wait to testify before the Senate national security and defence committee in Ottawa on Feb. 3, 2014. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) director Michel Coulombe (L) and Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) chief John Forster wait to testify before the Senate national security and defence committee in Ottawa on Feb. 3, 2014. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

Globe editorial

Hey CSEC, stop spying on me Add to ...

Lindsay Lyster, the president of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, says in a statement of claim that she has had a laptop since 2004, a cellphone until 2008, and a smartphone since then. She has used search engines such as Google. And she has used all of them at Canadian airports, through Wi-Fi.

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These humdrum assertions are the basis for a class-action lawsuit, commenced on Tuesday, on behalf of all Canadians, against the Communications Security Establishment Canada, this country’s signals-intelligence agency. CSEC is supposed to spy on signals outside Canada, but we know it often snoops at home, too. Which is why the BCCLA, in a separate legal action, is asking for a declaration that CSEC is infringing the Charter rights of Canadians.

Litigation is not an ideal context for scrutinizing a secret agency, but the country needs ways to pry loose CSEC’s purposes and policies. The wording of the sections of the National Defence Act, on which it relies, is muddy.

The banality of Ms. Lyster’s assertions in the statement of claim is a large part of the point. We all have cellphones, smartphones and Internet access, but recent revelations about CSEC’s activities suggest that merely using these basics of modern society makes you vulnerable to being spied on by the Canadian government.

In February, John Forster, the chief of CSEC, told a Senate committee that the agency often identifies foreign targets and dangerous networks abroad, by way of the metadata of randomly selected Canadians – the electronic equivalent of addresses on paper envelopes. It then proceeds until it finds some needle in the haystack. Airport Wi-Fi is evidently one convenient starting-point, as shown in documents leaked by Edward Snowden.

The notion that the surreptitious surveillance of private communications does not amount to “targeting” Canadians, as CSEC insists, or that this activity is not “directed” at them, is a weak and flimsy distinction.

The upshot is that any stalk of hay in a Canadian haystack is open to be spied upon, even when law-abiding people should have every reason to expect that their communications are private. The BCCLA lawsuit could cast some more light on CSEC’s dubious operations inside Canada.

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