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The new Communications Security Establishment Canada complex is pictured in Ottawa. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
The new Communications Security Establishment Canada complex is pictured in Ottawa. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Spy agency’s airport data gathering aimed at kidnappers, terrorists Add to ...

A controversial effort by Canada’s electronic eavesdropping agency to track the wireless devices of travellers at airports was intended to locate kidnappers and terrorists, a newly leaked document indicates.

The Communications Security Establishment Canada slide presentation published by the CBC says information was taken from wireless devices using an unidentified Canadian airport’s free Wi-Fi system over a two-week period.

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The May, 2012, presentation suggests the project could help security officials zero in on a kidnapper based in a rural area who travelled to a city to make ransom calls.

Ottawa-based CSEC monitors foreign computer, satellite, radio and telephone traffic of people, states, organizations and terrorist groups for information of intelligence interest to Canada. It is a key player in the Five Eyes intelligence network that includes partner agencies from the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

The focus on monitoring network Internet Protocol addresses was carried out by the partners’ Tipping and Cueing Task Force, a Five Eyes effort to allow their intelligence-gathering systems to “provide real-time alerts of events of interest.”

It notes terrorists continue to target airlines and hotels for attack, and that public Internet services in such facilities have “clear characteristics” – suggesting that could make it easier to find a suspect.

Edward Snowden, who once worked for CSEC’s American counterpart, gave the document to Brazil-based journalist Glenn Greenwald, who collaborated with the CBC. The public broadcaster released a censored version of the presentation, prepared by a CSEC “tradecraft developer” in the agency’s network analysis centre.

Its disclosure prompted opposition MPs to accuse the Conservative government Friday of allowing CSEC to track Canadians and spy on them.

“Will the minister acknowledge that tracking the locations of Canadians by CSEC is against the law?” asked New Democrat MP David Christopherson in the House of Commons. “Will he at least acknowledge it is wrong?”

Defence Minister Rob Nicholson, who is responsible for CSEC, repeatedly told the House that the eavesdropping service made it clear to CBC that Canadian communications were not targeted, collected or used, nor were travellers’ movements being tracked.

The watchdog over CSEC has consistently said the agency respects the law and the privacy of Canadians, Nicholson added.

CSEC spokeswoman Lauri Sullivan said in a statement that the agency is legally authorized to collect and analyze what is known as metadata – technical information used to route communications but not the actual contents of a phone call or message.

Some civil libertarians say CSEC’s metadata monitoring is worrisome because even this material can reveal much about a person, such as their location and who they are contacting.

Sullivan said all CSEC activities “include measures to protect the privacy of Canadians.”

“The classified document in question is a technical presentation between specialists exploring mathematical models built on everyday scenarios to identify and locate foreign terrorist threats,” she added.

“The unauthorized disclosure of tradecraft puts our techniques at risk of being less effective when addressing threats to Canada and Canadians.”

Material disclosed by Snowden last year indicated that Canada helped the United States and Britain spy on participants at the London G20 summit in 2009. Other documents from Snowden’s extensive cache suggested CSEC once monitored Brazil’s department of mines and energy.

Earlier this week, interim federal privacy commissioner Chantal Bernier said CSEC should table an annual public report in Parliament describing its continuing activities.

Bernier also recommended the eavesdropping agency disclose annual statistics on cases in which it assists other federal agencies with requests for interception, which can include monitoring of Canadians.

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