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Former chief of Communications Security Establishment Canada John Adams. DAVE CHAN for The Globe and MailDave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Two successive stories this week by Colin Freeze of The Globe and Mail show that the perplexities around electronic surveillance and cyberespionage have been compounding themselves in the past few years.

Canada needs a blue-ribbon panel, or even a royal commission, to recommend a coherent set of policies. Canada needs intelligence agencies. It also needs them to operate under laws demanding the highest level of respect for the privacy of Canadians.

Bill C-13, the most recent "lawful access" bill, has been referred to the House of Commons justice and human rights committee, but a comprehensive framework is required, at a remove from partisan politics.

John Adams, the previous head of the Communications Security Establishment Canada, has now said that the agency's "aggressive" counterespionage program led him to say, "Whoa," and to call for a pause to sort out questions of privacy. Even CSEC became uncertain about its legal duties in the face of cybercrime and threats to information-technology security. "Protecting Canada means you're going to be hitting Canadians," said Mr. Adams. "I shut the place down when I was worried about us trying to run before we walked."

As for John Forster, the present head of CSEC, an access-to-information request has shown that he was cautioned not to name China in connection with allegations of state-sponsored digital espionage, at his appearance before a Senate committee in February.

Yet the concern then seems to have been about the same group of people – an alleged Unit 61398, said to be a part of the Chinese army – that prosecutors in Pennsylvania have now laid charges against, saying 61398 stole intellectual property from American companies. What could not be said to Canadian parliamentarians can now be freely named in a U.S. courtroom.

Mr. Adams's comments may suggest that for a time Canada was counteracting cybercrime by looking for clues through random surveillance – in other words, fishing expeditions – rather than on starting from the basis of any reasonable grounds or even reasonable suspicion of crime.

There's need for clarity about what threats our spies are going after – and how they can do so without violating the privacy of Canadians. Right now, Canadian security and intelligence policy is operating in an atmosphere of legal confusion.