Canadians’ private digital information is inevitably being caught up in the U.S.’s massive surveillance dragnet, and Canada's government has both the capability and the legal loopholes needed to spy on its own citizens as well, experts say.
The Obama administration was rocked this week by revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency collects millions of phone records from Verizon daily, and another report that a secret program called PRISM monitors users’ communications on the networks of numerous tech giants, including Apple, Facebook and Google.
“The NSA has obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other US internet giants … which allows officials to collect material including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats,” the Guardian reported.
That has raised concerns among privacy rights advocates that Canadians’ personal information may be getting caught up in the U.S.’s programs. Many experts say there is no “if” here; because of the integrated, international nature of online communication, it’s inevitable Canadians’ communications are being collected as part of the U.S. programs.
“There is no border,” Ronald Deibert, head of the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, told the Toronto Star. “The way telecommunication traffic is routed in North America, the fact of the matter is about 90 per cent of Canadian traffic — no one really knows the exact number — is routed through the United States.”
That data passes through “filters and checkpoints” and is “shared with third parties, with law enforcement and of course intelligence agencies that operate in the shadows,” he said.
But Canada may be carrying out its own versions of mass, warrantless surveillance; at the very least, experts say, treaties Canada has signed and clauses in national security laws give Canada’s government the legal leeway to do so.
Unbeknownst to most Canadians, Canada has laws on the books enabling monitoring that are very similar to the controversial provisions of the USA Patriot Act.
Michael Geist, a leading tech law expert, points out in a recent blog posting that section 21 of the Canadian Security Intelligence Act is “arguably similar” to a section of the Patriot Act.
“Both do not require probable cause and both can be used to obtain any type of records or any other tangible thing. Moreover, the target of both warrants need not be the target of the national security investigation,” Geist wrote.
Canada has its own version of the NSA as well -- the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), an extremely secretive government agency responsible for monitoring foreign communications related to Canada’s national security. The agency can officially only monitor Canadian communications when a foreign party is involved.
But CSEC’s no-spying-on-Canadians rule apparently disappears when the agency is asked for help from other agencies, such as the RCMP, border services or CSIS, according to CSEC expert Bill Robinson, as quoted at the Ottawa Citizen.
No one can say for sure how much spying on Canadians CSEC may be doing, but Geist argues that the agency’s own explanations of how Canadians can end up under surveillance “sound awfully similar to the powers in the U.S. Given the lack of transparency, it certainly seems possible that there are similar activities taking place here.”
CSEC’s budget and staff have more than doubled since 9/11, to 2,000 people and $400 million annually. And the agency recently got even more secretive, to the point that an annual report on the agency’s priorities is now classified.
Can we find out for certain what CSEC is doing? Probably not, Halifax privacy lawyer David Fraser says -- at least not without the sort of whistleblowing that brought the U.S. surveillance programs to light.
The CSEC told the Star Friday it “operates within all Canadian laws,” but went on to say it “cannot comment on its methods, operations and capabilities. To do so would undermine CSEC’s ability to carry out its mandate.”
Additionally, Deibert and others point out that Canada has long been part of an agreement with the U.S., U.K. Australia and New Zealand to monitor communications worldwide. This surveillance network was built in “conjunction and co-ordination with the National Security Agency,” Deibert says.
Known alternately as “Five Eyes” or ECHELON, the program reportedly began as a Cold War-era surveillance network, and continues to operate to this day.
Its existence has been part of the public record for more than a decade.