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The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) recently destroyed large amounts of data gleaned from Canadians, which is a good thing seeing as it wasn’t supposed to have the data in the first place.

But even as the Great Erasure was taking place, the Security and Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), the federal intelligence watchdog, was preparing to publish a report that concluded CSIS is continuing to amass bulk data, and that portions of it are being “retained unlawfully.”

Clearly, there is a failure to communicate here.

Intelligence is a thankless business. We seldom if ever hear about its successes, and Canada’s spooks are forever playing catch-up against increasingly sophisticated quarries.

A constantly updated array of tools is required to do the job properly, but SIRC is of the opinion that CSIS’s need to collect bulk data about ordinary citizens without a warrant has not been proven.

Indeed, the committee rather damningly concluded in its report last week that CSIS “had difficulty in demonstrating … the utility” of large-scale datasets.

CSIS director David Vigneault respectfully disagreed, arguing the exigencies of modern intelligence gathering demand “the lawful authority to collect and analyze a broad range of data to identify previously unknown trends and patterns.”

As it happens, Ottawa’s soon-to-be-implemented Bill C-59 provides fairly wide authority in terms of gathering large volumes of information on Canadians – under certain conditions, and subject to checks and balances.

Fair play to Mr. Vigneault for asking for maximum latitude. It’s his job to do so.

But it would be easier to be sympathetic to the CSIS director’s position if the agency hadn’t gathered metadata – such as e-mail headers and telephone numbers – despite a prohibition against doing so. Or if it hadn’t held onto databases SIRC feels should have been destroyed in light of a court ruling two years ago.

The mandate carried out by CSIS is of fundamental importance. But if its data-collection and retention habits show us anything, it is that CSIS has not yet gone far enough in its obligation to respect the rights and privacy of Canadians.

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