Skip to main content

The new Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) complex is pictured in Ottawa on October 15, 2013.. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean KilpatrickSean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Inch by inch, the Communications Security Establishment Canada is becoming a little less mysterious. Scruples about the privacy of Canadians are more in evidence, though questions persist.

Much of the credit is due to Jean-Pierre Plouffe, a former judge who is now the commissioner of CSEC (that is, its watchdog).

CSEC, like its four colleagues in the Five Eyes group of foreign signal-intelligence agencies (the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, is not allowed to engage in surveillance of the people of its own country.

But of course some signals cross borders, and electronic communications coming from one country may arrive in Canada – and get picked up along the way.

Mr. Plouffe's annual report on CSEC is the first to put a precise number – 66 – on electronic communications of Canadians that have been "unintentionally intercepted" and at least temporarily kept by the agency in a year. He examined them all himself, and his staff did further scrutiny.

Of these, 41 were used in CSEC reports, with Canadian names "suppressed." The other 25 have been kept for future use. That still leaves open how many Canadian citizens and residents were, so to speak, repeat customers. In any case, these two-digit numbers are not very alarming.

On the other hand, Mr. Plouffe said CSEC staff didn't always accurately assess which messages didn't need to be kept as "essential to international affairs."

As Craig Forcese, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, said on Twitter, this helps those who struggle to see more than the tip of the iceberg that is CSEC.

Yet recently, a skillful amateur, Bill Robinson of London, Ont., has all but proved that CSEC used Canadians' private metadata through WiFi at Pearson Airport in Toronto, in order to engage international networks – perhaps not quite interception, but not unintentional, either.