Skip to main content

Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) director Michel Coulombe (L) and Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) chief John Forster wait to testify before the Senate national security and defence committee in Ottawa on Feb. 3, 2014.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

Lindsay Lyster, the president of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, says in a statement of claim that she has had a laptop since 2004, a cellphone until 2008, and a smartphone since then. She has used search engines such as Google. And she has used all of them at Canadian airports, through Wi-Fi.

These humdrum assertions are the basis for a class-action lawsuit, commenced on Tuesday, on behalf of all Canadians, against the Communications Security Establishment Canada, this country's signals-intelligence agency. CSEC is supposed to spy on signals outside Canada, but we know it often snoops at home, too. Which is why the BCCLA, in a separate legal action, is asking for a declaration that CSEC is infringing the Charter rights of Canadians.

Litigation is not an ideal context for scrutinizing a secret agency, but the country needs ways to pry loose CSEC's purposes and policies. The wording of the sections of the National Defence Act, on which it relies, is muddy.

Story continues below advertisement

The banality of Ms. Lyster's assertions in the statement of claim is a large part of the point. We all have cellphones, smartphones and Internet access, but recent revelations about CSEC's activities suggest that merely using these basics of modern society makes you vulnerable to being spied on by the Canadian government.

In February, John Forster, the chief of CSEC, told a Senate committee that the agency often identifies foreign targets and dangerous networks abroad, by way of the metadata of randomly selected Canadians – the electronic equivalent of addresses on paper envelopes. It then proceeds until it finds some needle in the haystack. Airport Wi-Fi is evidently one convenient starting-point, as shown in documents leaked by Edward Snowden.

The notion that the surreptitious surveillance of private communications does not amount to "targeting" Canadians, as CSEC insists, or that this activity is not "directed" at them, is a weak and flimsy distinction.

The upshot is that any stalk of hay in a Canadian haystack is open to be spied upon, even when law-abiding people should have every reason to expect that their communications are private. The BCCLA lawsuit could cast some more light on CSEC's dubious operations inside Canada.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter
To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies