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Security bill will enable CSE to disable computers located abroad: memos

A sign for the Government of Canada's Communications Security Establishment is seen outside their headquarters in the east end of Ottawa, on on July 23, 2015.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Newly released memos from the federal government's data-spying agency say that legislation now before Parliament will enable it to disable computers located abroad and potentially "corrupt information sitting on foreign servers."

Within Canada, the agency hopes to better monitor what "hacktivists" are saying on internet forums and which hashtags are popular with terrorism suspects.

But the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) wants to give the public broad reassurances that it will not use its growing array of newly legislated powers to indiscriminately build dossiers on Canadian citizens.

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These assertions all appear in briefing notes prepared for CSE officials who appeared before a parliamentary committee last fall. They were obtained by The Globe and Mail under the Access to Information Act.

The materials provide a somewhat clearer picture of how the intelligence agency will defend its new CSE Act as overarching omnibus legislation moves through Parliament. Bill C-59 is intended to be the federal government's fulfilment of campaign promises to rein in its spy services, but there are concerns that some kinds of spies will become supercharged instead.

The CSE is a highly secretive agency that never speaks to its more invasive activities. That's why critics are urging parliamentarians to press for more details before passing any legislation.

"Unfortunately, there is a vast difference between how the CSE publicly describes its intended use of these powers and [the] ways they could be used (and abused) in the future," said researcher Chris Parsons. In an e-mail, he added that "as drafted, the legislation could, as an example, see the CSE collect large volumes of personal information from social media profiles."

A member of the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, which focuses on digital media, security and human rights, Mr. Parsons was among a group of Canadian academics who last month released a paper drawing attention to the more draconian interpretations of Bill C-59. They urged lawmakers to build in greater privacy protections.

While the eavesdropping agency has operated for decades, it has done so mostly under its own interpretations of secret legal orders signed by cabinet ministers. A federal watchdog for the CSE has repeatedly raised questions over the past 15 years about those interpretations, and its officials will testify before a parliamentary committee on Tuesday.

Broadly banned from eavesdropping on Canadian citizens, the CSE is mostly known for collecting "foreign intelligence" – keeping an ear out for what Canada's adversaries, competitors or even allies are doing abroad.

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But in the aftermath of 9/11, federal officials redrew the legal lines between foreign and domestic spying. The CSE was given ministerial clearances to amass enormous volumes of retrievable records known as metadata. Such records can show the telecommunications traffic of citizens and non-citizens alike, revealing telling patterns without intercepting the substance of any conversations. In 2014, leaks showed that the CSE had used metadata to track smartphones around the world after the phones had logged onto the WiFi system of a Canadian airport.

Such spying activities are controversial, and a civil liberties group is currently suing the CSE for alleged unlawful spying. But if Bill C-59 passes, Canadian intelligence analysts will be on much firmer legal footings than they are now as they perform ever more sophisticated surveillance.

The fallout from such leaks – and the questionable spying powers afforded to other agencies – led the federal Liberals to campaign on putting government intelligence agencies in check.

This in turn led to Bill C-59, which creates new classes of watchdog entities for Canadian spy agencies. On Nov. 29, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale arrived to a House of Commons committee surrounded by a phalanx of federal security officials, including a CSE contingent, to speak about these portions of the act.

Their briefing notes included a page of bullet-point responses to MPs' anticipated questions that speaks to many of the CSE's anticipated roles, though the answers assert that the CSE only spies with national-security aims in mind.

For example, the CSE would only "corrupt information sitting on foreign servers" if that information had first been stolen from the Canadian government, the materials say.

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The briefing notes urged CSE officials to allude to the recent allegations of Russian hackers interfering in the U.S. presidential election by saying that the new laws could help the agency assist in "covertly dismantling foreign-based systems used to disrupt the democratic system."

While the CSE has also been given a new mandate to help Canadian soldiers conduct cyberwar, two bullet points that speak to how that might work have been redacted from the released document.

The most ambiguous clauses of the new act are ones that clear a path for the CSE to collect "publicly available information." Civil libertarians have seized on that language to suggest that the intelligence agency wants to vacuum up social media accounts and possibly build searchable dossiers of people's facial imagery and personal details.

But "this is not an authority to conduct investigations or a means of collecting intelligence," the briefing materials say. Rather, it upholds that the CSE only wants to do "basic research" without exposing its analysts to allegations of unlawful domestic spying.

So, according to these examples, CSE analysts need new legal cover to read "publicly available security-expert blogs" and peruse online forums where "hacktivists" gather "to discuss their plans to launch cyberattacks." Twitter and Facebook would be browsed to "look at the popularity of a hashtag in order to assess the morale of foreign fighters abroad."

"This section of the proposed CSE Act does not authorize CSE to use public information to investigate Canadians," said Ryan Foreman, a spokesman for the agency. In an e-mail, he added that "it is intended to clear up ambiguities."

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