08/20/2014 05:45 EDT | Updated 10/20/2014 05:59 EDT

CSEC kept 66 'unintentionally' obtained private communications

The man charged with keeping a watchful eye on the conduct of Canada's electronic spy agency says CSEC acquired and retained 66 private communications of citizens it had obtained unintentionally in the course of its foreign intelligence gathering.

In a report tabled Wednesday, Communications Security Establishment Canada commissioner Jean-Pierre Plouffe said that all CSEC activities he reviewed over the last year complied with the law, and that all private communications  recognized by CSEC were intercepted unintentionally.

"There was no intention on CSEC’s part in collecting these communications with a Canadian end; the Canadian end was in all cases incidental to CSEC’s intentional targeting of a foreign entity outside Canada (the foreign end)," he wrote.

Of the 66 private communications intercepted and retained, 41 were used in CSEC reports — with the Canadian identities suppressed in the reports — and 25 were retained by CESC for future use. All other recognized private communications unintentionally intercepted by CESC were destroyed, he said.

Plouffe did uncover instances in which "procedures relating to the identification of private communications were not followed correctly by CSEC employees," including several cases where those communications were erroneously marked for retention — but, he says, were ultimately deleted.

New rules for info sharing recommended

His predecessor, Robert Decary, had also advised Defence Minister Rob Nicholson to issue a new directive on sharing information with the other members of the "Five Eyes" network — the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand — that would "clearly set out expectations for the protection of the privacy of Canadians."

The commissioner's office also wants the agency to provide regular statistical reports to the minister on information shared with "second parties," which would include the Five Eyes.

"This would make the minister aware of the extent of such information relating to Canadians, and thereby supplement existing measures to protect the privacy of Canadians," Plouffe notes.

As for his current workload, the report states that a "focused" review of the use of metadata is currently underway.

Plouffe also intends to look into "particular foreign signals intelligence activities done under ministerial authorization," as well as CSEC activities in support of the military and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).

Commissioner wants to 'set record straight' on CSEC activities

Plouffe also used his first annual report to "set the record straight" following the "intense public debate" sparked by disclosure of classified files by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

"Unlike what has been publicly speculated over the past year, my role… is to ensure Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) is conducting its activities in a manner compliant with the law," writes Plouffe in his introductory message to his yearly report, which was tabled in the House of Commons on Wednesday.

In fact, he says, "that is a good part of the reason why I accepted the position of CSE Commissioner last October. I do not wish to live in a society where the state makes unjustified intrusions into its citizens' privacy.

"Nor, however, do I wish to live in a country where the security of both its citizens and the nation itself is not a priority of the government, especially at this time when increasingly serious and complex challenges threaten our interests."

To that end, he says, his job "is focused squarely on CSEC and whether its operational activities respect the law and the privacy of Canadians."

'Scrupulously investigating' privacy risks

The furor over the Snowden disclosures, he says, has left him concerned that "commentators are raising fears that are based not on fact, but rather, on partial and sometimes incorrect information" on CSEC activities.

"I want to reassure Canadians, especially those who are skeptical about the effectiveness of review of intelligence agencies, that I am scrupulously investigating those CSEC activities that present the greatest risks to compliance with the law and to privacy," he notes.

"Rest assured that I will do so with the requisite vigour and all the powers of the Inquiries Act necessary to arrive at comprehensive conclusions."

He also pledged to "make public as much information as possible about these investigations," as, he notes, "transparency is important to maintain public trust."

But though he acknowledges that questions have been raised about the independence of his office, Plouffe is adamant that he has the power to "fully investigate CSEC," and an office budget "sufficient to conduct an adequate amount of meaningful review."

Defence Minister Rob Nicholson responded to the report, saying it "confirms the benefits of having an independent watchdog provide comprehensive and impartial oversight of CSEC, as is currently the case, as opposed to giving politicians greater involvement in matters of national security operations."