Skip to main content

John Forster is chief of Communications Security Establishment Canada.FRED CHARTRAND/The Canadian Press

Not every reassurance is reassuring. The testimony of John Forster, the chief of the Communications Security Establishment Canada to a Senate committee this month, about a leaked presentation on "IP Profiling Analytics & Mission Impacts," has now been confirmed by CSEC's watchdog, the Office of the Commissioner of CSEC, led by Jean-Pierre Plouffe, a former superior court judge.

We now know that CSEC somehow accessed the public WiFi signals at a major Canadian airport, apparently gathering "metadata" on thousands of Canadians.

Mr. Forster and Mr. Plouffe correctly point out that ministers of defence legally authorized the collection and analysis of this metadata: information about who is talking to whom, when and where, rather than what they are saying. It is fair to say that most Canadians would feel intruded upon if they realized that the government was gathering information on their movements, their location, their relationships and whom they are talking to by phone or online – all without a judge having granted the equivalent of a wiretap authorization. And yet by law, the defence minister can authorize all this with a stroke of a pen, and has. This truck-sized legal loophole violates common sense, not to mention some basic and long-standing constitutional principles.

The chief of CSEC and its commissioner say that this country's foreign signals intelligence agency, which is supposed to focus on threats overseas, does not "direct" its surveillance at Canadians or people in Canada, or "target" them. That is all very well, but should CSEC, in order to identify and locate foreign targets, be able to spy on Canadians? Mr. Forster told the Senate committee on national security and defence that CSEC has collected some metadata, on both non-Canadians and Canadians, in order to pinpoint foreign threats to Canada.

Until recently, the few Canadians who had ever heard of CSEC took at face value its stated purpose: gathering of foreign signals intelligence from other countries – not from Canada. The exceptions to that clear rule are looming ever larger.

CSEC needs clearer rules and stronger oversight. Secret authorizations cannot be enough to justify widespread spying on Canadians, citizens living in country based on the rule of law.