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A Canadian Maple Leaf flag flies near the Peace tower on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Feb.15, 2012. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
A Canadian Maple Leaf flag flies near the Peace tower on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Feb.15, 2012. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

How Canada’s shadowy metadata-gathering program went awry Add to ...

A week ago, most Canadians were unlikely to have heard of Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) and its program gathering “metadata” on untold numbers of global phone calls and online messages. But on Monday, The Globe and Mail reported that the agency’s operations, meant to collect foreign intelligence, also at least “incidentally” intercept the communications of Canadians. Many people were left to wonder: Is Ottawa invading our privacy?

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Now, it turns out that some officials in Ottawa had the same worry – as long ago as 2008, according to a report obtained by The Globe. Marked “Top Secret” and “CEO” (Canadian Eyes Only), the document sounds alarms over surveillance activities of great “complexity and breadth.”

“Some of CSEC’s metadata activities raise issues that make us question whether CSEC is always in compliance with the limits,” reads the report from the office of then-CSEC watchdog Charles Gonthier, a former Supreme Court justice. It flags questionable activities and the possibility that Canadians’ private information had been compromised.

The government seems to have acted pre-emptively ahead of the report: Other records show that some surveillance activities by CSEC (“see-seck”) were put on hiatus from April, 2007, until October, 2008, when they were resumed with new rules under Defence Minister Peter MacKay.

That may seem reassuring. But the suspension showed that this shadowy program had gone awry – to the point that the government was willing to give up information in the fight against terrorism and other crimes for more than a year.

The Globe unearthed these facts via access-to-information legislation. The courts, Parliament and the wider public have never been informed of them.

This week’s revelations have made it clearer to the public that Canada, like other governments, is voraciously scouring the globe for telecommunications data trails – phone logs, Internet protocols and other “routing” information.

The idea is that this “metadata” will help them map out social networks that could point to security threats.

The sharpest image has come from revelations about CSEC’s U.S. counterpart, the National Security Agency (NSA). Leaks have shown that the NSA has compelled telephone and Internet companies to hand over mass quantities of records on Americans’ communications, in apparent contradiction of its mandate to leave U.S. citizens alone.

The 29-year-old whistleblower, Edward Snowden, has been hiding out in a Hong Kong hotel room and calling government surveillance programs “existential threats to democracy.”

CSEC is a close ally of the NSA and borrows some of its approach and language, as well as quite a bit of its technology, although CSEC has never adopted the U.S. agency’s methods or software wholesale.

And where Washington has demonstrated its commitment to the NSA with the construction in Utah of an immense $2-billion base said to be capable of processing a zettabyte of data, the Canadian government is building CSEC a gleaming new $900-million, 72,000-square-metre compound in Ottawa – even as it has relocated military and RCMP operations to older, cheaper offices on the outskirts of the nation’s capital, in buildings vacated by fallen technology companies.

While officials will not answer questions about how often CSEC’s technical skills are used to advance domestic investigations, by all accounts the collaboration is ongoing – the new headquarters will include a glass bridge leading to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service building next door.

“There is close co-operation” between CSEC and CSIS as well as the RCMP, said a former domestic-security official, who spoke unauthorized on condition of anonymity.

“But there are walls,” he also stressed.

He maintained that the strictures surrounding the sharing of surveillance intelligence in Canada can make CSEC less like Big Brother and more “Boy Scouty.”

The records obtained by The Globe show that these distinctions have been debated vigorously within the security bureaucracy over the past decade.

Though heavily redacted, these hundreds of pages of documents together yield a glimpse into a subterranean security world and its actors, controversies and, perhaps, corrective actions.

CSEC’s roots are in the Cold War. During the Second World War, the Canadian government’s scientific-research agency, the National Research Council, had been commandeered for military purposes. Afterward, it reverted to a mostly civilian role, but continued to include a communications branch as a workplace for civilian engineers listening in on communist countries. The branch would suck “foreign signals-intelligence” out of the sky, from ocean cables and from listening posts in embassies abroad.

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