09/05/2013 12:13 EDT | Updated 11/05/2013 05:12 EST

What Canadians Need to Know About CSEC Spying

Thousands of Canadians are speaking out to defend their privacy rights, after recent revelations that an ultra-secretive government agency is spying on our everyday online activities. This agency, the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), was revealed to be systematically collecting the private information of law-abiding citizens, including Canadians, from around the world.

Fresh developments show that Canadians are absolutely right to be concerned. Just last week, CSEC's own official watchdog revealed that the spy agency may have illegally targeted Canadians within the past 12 months.

Americans are also speaking out after it was revealed that the National Security Agency (NSA), through a secret program called PRISM, can, according to the Guardian, "collect material, including search history, the content of emails, file transfers, and live chats" from online users. The NSA is able to gather vast amounts of online information from users because of the extensive access they have been given to large Internet companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google.

Nor are concerns about the NSA's activities limited to Internet users in the U.S. As the Huffington Post's Daniel Tencer points out, online users in Canada need to be worried too, because of "the integrated, international nature of online communication", about 90 per cent of Canadian Internet traffic is now routed through the U.S.

When it comes to Canada's own spy agency, CSEC is supposedly tasked with "monitoring foreign communications related to Canada's national security", writes Tencer. In fact, as Ronald Deibert, director of the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, points out, CSEC was created "in 'conjunction and coordination with the National Security Agency".

Supposedly, CSEC is only permitted to monitor communications in foreign countries - however, according to CSEC expert Bill Robinson, this rule no longer applies when CSEC conducts work in support of other agencies such as the RCMP or CSIS. Furthermore, by being able to gather the personal information of online users, this government agency can, as Deibert points out, "pinpoint not only who you are, but with whom you meet, with what frequency and duration, and at which locations".

The secrecy that surrounds CSEC means that it is not yet possible to truly know just how much online spying is being done within this country. Even the government's own Privacy Commissioner's Office has ominously stated that they have "very little specific information at this point, but we want to find out more".

The lack of transparency about CSEC is very troubling. Tencer points out that CSEC takes secrecy to such an extreme that even its yearly "report on the agency's priorities is... classified". Canadians deserve to know whether and how often CSEC is infringing our online privacy, especially as its resources are growing fast, with a doubling of employees and budgets.

What makes this situation so troubling is the fact that, despite all these revelations about how Canadians' Charter-protected privacy rights are being undermined, the federal government is still trying to keep Canadians in the dark about how their private online information is being handled.

We need to use this moment -- when privacy issues are in the spotlight -- to get answers. Call on the government to stop this secretive spying scheme, and to tell Canadians exactly what's going on. We deserve to know. Canadians can send the government a clear message to keep our private lives private by signing the petition at: