A mysterious federal intelligence centre is back in the business of warehousing telecommunications trails that have been covertly captured in Canada.
This is because the legal issues with the Operational Data Analysis Centre have been mostly fixed, according to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
News of this development comes six months after the Federal Court of Canada made headlines for challenging CSIS's credibility and outing ODAC by declaring aspects of its data-mining operations illegal.
"As of March, 2017, CSIS has implemented new retention practices for information," Tahera Mufti, a CSIS spokeswoman, said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail.
These fixes should pass muster with judges, she said, thus "allowing ODAC to recommence its analysis" of once-contentious data. Such programs are "vital to the service's national-security investigations," she added.
ODAC, once a highly obscure entity, burst into public's attention last fall, arriving as it did with a convoluted lexicon, a fraught legal environment and ample political baggage.
The Globe reported Wednesday that when the initiative was launched in 2006, CSIS gave its then-minister a high-level overview in a 2 1/2-page memo. He was assured that ODAC was lawful, necessary and that the spy service would soon brief the Federal Court of Canada about it.
Ten years later, the 14 judges at that court who review intelligence-agency wiretaps lamented that CSIS had never once volunteered any details about ODAC to them.
Instead, they learned about the centre a decade late, through a reference written in a public report to Parliament. Four hearings with CSIS officials and nearly all of the designated intelligence judges followed.
Complaining CSIS had not been frank with the court, the judges ruled that one of several pools of data warehoused within ODAC was unlawful.
In course of its routine eavesdropping campaigns sanctioned by the court against targeted individuals, CSIS had started drawing distinctions about the kinds of communications it captured. Communications contents (spoken and written words) were treated differently than the communications metadata (such as logs of dialled phone number and Internet activity).
When ODAC was launched, CSIS used it to warehouse all acquired metadata regardless of where it came from. The pool became a mix of data relating to bona fide targets of CSIS, and also people who just happened to be in proximity to, or in communication with, targets of CSIS.
The Federal Court was never apprised about the CSIS distinctions between captured contents and captured metadata, nor how intelligence agencies globally were increasingly gravitating from the former to the latter.
When they did get a chance to ruminate on all this, the judges ruled that it was a major violation of privacy and intelligence laws for CSIS to keep metadata relating to people known to be innocent. They ordered CSIS to quarantine this problematic pool from ODAC's other holdings. (And nothing specific about these other pools of data has ever been revealed.)
The data analysis at ODAC never stopped, but following the Federal Court ruling, it got more complicated. CSIS returned to feeding new metadata into ODAC this month under the new rules, even as the problematic past pool of metadata remains off limits.
"ODAC's historical metadata holdings will remain fenced off, and unavailable for use, until a final decision regarding their disposition is made," Ms. Mufti said.
The fact that the court ordered the data quarantined, but not destroyed, may even signal potential legislative change.
While Federal Court judges and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale have expressed frustration with CSIS over the ODAC imbroglio, they also expressed they believe that CSIS data analytics may work well. They have suggested that if the CSIS Act were amended, it could give federal intelligence analyst more data to work with.
"As you will know, [the Federal Court's Justice Simon Noël] himself commented on the fact that the legislation might be needing an update," Mr. Goodale said at a Parliamentary committee in December. "Since it was written at a time when the fax machine would have been considered groundbreaking technology."
Mr. Goodale then added that "he raised the question of whether or not the legislation itself needed an upgrade and a modernization. We will consider all of the factors that are relevant in these circumstances."