The issue of data privacy is generating intense debate following revelations the U.S. National Security Agency has been tapping into the information banks of American Internet giants.
Britain's Guardian newspaper, quoting leaked NSA documents, says a top-secret data-mining program known as Prism has given the U.S. government access to a huge volume of emails, chat logs and other information from Internet companies including Google, Microsoft and Apple.
The office of privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart said Monday the scope of information reportedly being collected raises "significant concerns."
The major Internet companies have denied participation in Prism, and Stoddart said it is difficult to assess the merit of the allegations. However, she plans to confer with the watchdog that oversees the Communications Security Establishment — the Canadian counterpart to the NSA — "to determine how the personal information of Canadians may be affected."
Stoddart also said she plans to contact fellow international data-protection authorities, who may share similar concerns about the information of their citizens, to discuss combining fact-finding efforts.
The CSE, with headquarters in a plain-looking building in Ottawa's south end, monitors foreign computer, satellite, radio and telephone traffic. It is a key component of the intelligence-sharing network known as the Five Eyes — Canada, the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
Britain's Government Communications Headquarters, which works closely with the NSA and CSE, has had access to the Prism system for at least three years and generated 197 intelligence reports from it last year, the Guardian reported.
Canada's CSE has had no similar access to Prism, Defence Minister Peter MacKay said Monday in the House of Commons.
"The answer is no," MacKay said bluntly during question period.
CSE spokesman Ryan Foreman echoed the denial late Monday, saying the agency "does not have access to data in Prism."
The Guardian has also reported that the NSA has been handed access to phone records from Verizon Communications, which has almost 100 million wireless customers, for a three-month period. The order gave the U.S. spy agency not the content of the calls but the metadata — including phone numbers, locations and time of contact.
MacKay was peppered with questions about the CSE's metadata program, which has been in place since 2005, and he stressed that the eavesdropping service was operating within the law.
"This program is specifically prohibited from looking at the information of Canadians," MacKay said.
"This program is very much directed at activities outside the country, foreign threats, in fact. There is rigorous oversight. There is legislation in place that specifically dictates what can and cannot be examined."
Robert Decary, the retired judge who keeps an eye on the CSE, first examined how the spy outfit uses metadata in 2006 — and his office says he continues to monitor the efforts.
In December 2011, the CSE advised Decary that MacKay had approved seven new directives to the spy service, including one on the use of metadata gleaned through foreign intelligence gathering.
The directive updated one implemented eight years earlier, though it is not clear why the tweak was deemed necessary.
The document, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act, says the CSE's use of metadata "will be subject to strict conditions to protect the privacy of Canadians, consistent with these standards governing CSE's other programs."
It lists five steps the CSE must take to protect Canadian privacy, though the details were deleted from the version released under the access law.
Stoddart's office says that when it comes to the CSE’s metadata program, "we know very little specific information at this point, but we want to find out more."
Last week, CSE spokesman Ryan Foreman said the agency could not comment on its methods, operations or capabilities, but he did say the agency functions within all Canadian laws.
The CSE has a staff of more than 2,000 — including skilled mathematicians and computer whizzes — and an annual budget of about $400 million. It plans to centralize operations at a new campus in Ottawa's east end next to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the domestic spy agency.
Paloma Aguilar, a spokeswoman for MacKay, said the minister had met the chief of CSE, John Forster, within the last week, but she declined to provide details.