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Politics Canadians are lax on privacy, Senate committee hears

Former chief of Communications Security Establishment Canada John Adams. DAVE CHAN for The Globe and Mail

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Canadians are "stupid" and post far too much information online, a former head of the national electronic spying agency says, leaving the country with a "long ways to go" in protecting personal information in an Internet era.

John Adams made the comment in a Senate meeting Wednesday as he and other witnesses discussed a bill that would create an all-party parliamentary committee to oversee the top-secret efforts of Canada's intelligence and security agencies – a notion backed by Mr. Adams, who led Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) from 2005-11.

The bill comes as the government faces growing complaints about other bills expanding surveillance powers online.

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Mr. Adams told the committee one perception he'd heard of Web-surfing Canadians. "One half is stupid, and the other half is stupid," Mr. Adams said, recalling a view of Canadians in their online habits. "I can confirm that. We put more online, [on] Facebook, than any other country in the world." Mr. Adams later added: "We're not very smart, so we've got a long ways to go."

Interim privacy commissioner Chantal Bernier instead said Canadians are trusting – adding Mr. Adams's choice of words were not hers.

"I believe Canadians are very smart and Canadians appreciate the fact they live in a democracy, a real democracy where we are lucky to have robust government structures" protecting privacy, Ms. Bernier said. "Where there is confusion is in relation, I believe, to the power of the Internet … we're at a crossroads at this point where we use the Internet without having fully understood its powers and its risks."

Wednesday's meeting of the Senate Liberal caucus was dedicated to consideration of Bill S-220, which would create a parliamentary committee to boost oversight of Canada's surveillance regime. Senator Hugh Segal, the bill's sponsor, said national security is a struggle between a democracy's freedoms and protecting the public.

"And if we lose that balance, then we fall into a potential dead-end of doing things in defence of our freedom that are, in and of themselves, perhaps unwittingly a violation," Mr. Segal said.

Senator and former Canadian lieutenant-general Roméo Dallaire, who announced his resignation the same day, is co-sponsoring the bill – and believes the intelligence community backs it. "I do not believe the institutions are reticent of having that [parliamentary] capability. I just feel that we on this [Parliament] Hill have a problem of grappling with this," he said.

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