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John Forster, chief of Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), prepares to appear before the Senate National Security and Defence committee in Ottawa on Feb. 3, 2014.

FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Who is talking to whom – known as "metadata" – can be as revealing as what they are actually saying to each other. Most Canadians would be surprised at the potentially vast scope of the government's surveillance of their metadata – the digital equivalent of the address on an envelope, together with the sender's name – by the Communications Security Establishment Canada, an agency whose primary function is supposed to be spying outside of Canada.

On Monday, John Forster, the chief of CSEC, appeared before a Senate committee, and provided some clarity on this matter. Clarity, but not satisfaction.

Mr. Forster dropped a bombshell, saying that the minister of defence had in 2005 and 2011 granted authorizations to CSEC under the National Defence Act to snoop into the metadata of Canadians. Canadians have a right not to be spied upon by their government, unless there is some very good reason. What are the criteria for surveillance by an arm of the state? No clear principles have yet been articulated by the government, let alone in an act of Parliament or a regulation. The law as it stands says the minister can grant authorizations, and apparently he has.

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In the normal course of events, your private possessions, including your information, cannot be snooped into by the state except when authorized by a judge. When it comes to metadata, the standard for granting the equivalent of a search warrant might be lower. But right now, the law says that CSEC, an agency created to gather foreign intelligence, can also spy on Canadians whenever the government gives it the okay. Where's the oversight? This is an exception big enough to drive a truck through.

All of this should be debated in Parliament, not left for awkward explanations in the aftermath of embarrassing disclosures, such as those by Edward Snowden.

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