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The federal government will spend nearly half a billion dollars this year on Canada’s electronic eavesdropping service, a spy group that is rapidly growing despite the austerity measures imposed on many other government agencies.

KACPER PEMPEL/REUTERS

The playful, almost giddy tone of the Communications Security Establishment Canada's power-point presentation that was revealed last week suggests an extraordinary lack of perspective on what the spy agency's powers and duties consist of – and what is against the law.

One passage reads, "Many clusters will resolve to other Airports! Can then take seeds from these airports and repeat to cover whole world." The object of what was described as a "game-changing" exercise was to lead to "a new needle-in-a-haystack analytic." In plain English? CSEC broke into the WiFi service of a major Canadian airport, and thence into the communications of travellers at that airport, and eventually tracked those fliers far beyond the airport. They apparently spied on the wireless devices of thousands of innocent Canadians. All of this has come to light thanks to documents recently made public by Edward Snowden, the former U.S. National Security Agency contractor.

The "whole world" – minus Canada – is comparatively legitimate territory for CSEC. Its mission is to gather and analyze signals intelligence from outside Canada. It isn't supposed to spy on Canadians. In exceptional circumstances, CSEC can ask the minister of national defence for authorization to perform signals-intelligence operations in Canada, but it would be unacceptable if a cabinet minister authorized random surveillance of the communications of Canadians. Nor, surely, would a judge grant a search warrant for this purpose. Who did, or did not, give the go-ahead for this airport snooping?

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On a related matter, a recent response to an access-to-information request said that CSEC had, over the course of four years, received 294 requests for help from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the RCMP and (to a very small extent) from the Canadian Border Service Agency and the military. That's a shockingly large number.

The impression left is that CSEC is stepping far, far outside the lines. Where is the independent oversight to stop it? Is there any? In the case of the airport WiFi snooping, CSEC either received rubber-stamp approval from the minister or a judge – approval that should not have been given – or it acted outside the law, of its own accord. Either way, Canadians need to know more about what their intelligence agencies are up to. Technology makes possible pervasive snooping on Canadians. The law should not allow it.

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