06/12/2013 05:04 EDT | Updated 08/12/2013 05:12 EDT

Privacy czar to meet with e-spy watchdog on eavesdropping concerns

OTTAWA - Canada's privacy watchdog plans to meet Thursday with the retired judge who keeps an eye on the national eavesdropping agency.

Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart says she's concerned that the public knows little about what Robert Decary does in his role monitoring the ultra-secret Communications Security Establishment.

"I don't think Canadians know enough about the workings of this office," she said Wednesday in an interview.

"It deserves more attention, and so I would like to help bring Canadians' attention to this function, how it works."

The planned meeting follows accusations that a key CSE ally, the U.S. National Security Agency, has gained wholesale access to the databanks 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.

Several of the companies have denied involvement in such a sweeping program.

Stoddart said earlier this week she would look into any implications for Canada posed by the possible large-scale U.S. snooping. She also wants to know more about the CSE's long-standing surveillance of foreign Internet, telephone and satellite traffic.

The CSE said this week that it "does not have access to data in Prism."

Decary issues an annual report of his findings, but is limited in what he can say publicly about the CSE and its place in the intelligence alliance of Five Eyes — Canada, the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

"I think Canadians would benefit from hearing more about the system," Stoddart said.

"Because like any system, it's not perfect. We have had our issues in the past. We have had our problems with mishandling of personal information.

"And as the surveillance systems become technologically more sophisticated, it's important that Canadians understand how the protections work and so can participate in debates about whether or not to strengthen them, and whether or not they are sufficient to protect our liberties."

The recent media reports have heightened public concern around the world about unwarranted state intrusion.

A group of Canadian organizations focused on civil liberties, privacy rights and open access to the Internet have joined together to seek answers from the government.

"We deserve to know if our private information is being collected and stored in giant unsecured databases," the coalition said in a statement.

"We demand an immediate stop to any programs of indiscriminate and arbitrary online spying."

The coalition includes the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, the Council of Canadians, the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group, Leadnow, and OpenMedia.ca, among others.

It wants to know more about the reach of the CSE's surveillance and what it does with the material it gathers.

"What is the scope of the government's information sharing activities with foreign partners?" asked the group.

The Ottawa-based CSE has a staff of more than 2,000 — including highly skilled mathematicians and linguists — and an annual budget of about $400 million.

In the House of Commons on Wednesday, opposition MPs continued to press Defence Minister Peter MacKay, minister responsible for the CSE, arguing the privacy of Canadians was at risk.

The CSE is expressly forbidden from directing its spying activities at Canadians, MacKay said.

"What it does is protect Canadians," he said. "It does so in accordance with the law, it does so when it comes to the gathering of foreign intelligence, which is actually a threat to this country."