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editorial

Citizenfour (2014) Documentary. Courtesy of eOne Films Edward Snowden Laura Poitras' thrilling documentary captures the clandestine Hong Kong hotel-room meetings between NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and the journalists who helped bring his bombshells forward.

'Levitation" might suggest a matter of levity, but the project of the Communications Security Establishment Canada that goes by that name is another unsettling example of "tradecraft" disclosed by Edward Snowden.

The objective of the program is detecting terrorists, but Levitation appears to do this by broadly surveilling Canadians – just what CSEC is not allowed to do.

Mr. Snowden found a deck of CSEC slides explaining how Levitation sweeps up vast quantities of files from upload sites, searching for suspicious videos or other electronic documents that, for example, provide instructions to terrorists on how to make a gas bomb.

The Levitation presentation uncovered by Mr. Snowden is businesslike, and has a relaxed and often jocular language. For example, it explains how, in searching through millions of uploaded files, Levitation is able to filter out episodes of the musical-comedy television show Glee.

If uploaded episodes of TV programs and enormous quantities of other data are being searched and accessed, it suggests that CSEC is collecting huge libraries of files and signals from millions of Canadians. Which, again, is not what CSEC is supposed to be doing.

The CSEC presentation says that it sees 10 to 15 million free file uploads (FFU) per day from around the world. The presentation says that out of all of this trawling, CSEC is "finding about 350 interesting download events" a month. One example of success was finding a hostage-taking strategy for Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which the CIA and other agencies then shared.

The CBC asked CSEC 13 questions about Levitation. None received a clear answer. Instead, the agency replied with four paragraphs insisting on the muddy distinction between data and metadata – think of the former as the words of a conversation and the latter as information about the conversation. CSEC added that it doesn't "direct its activities at Canadians or anyone in Canada."

But CSEC appears to be constantly bumping into Canadian data and metadata. This country's signals intelligence policy is using sophistries to walk a thin line between legality and illegality.