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Canada’s Secret Spy Agency Sued for Spying on You

WARNING: Military Spooks Probably Know You Are Reading This

You could be in Canada's secret surveillance database. All it takes is a phone call, text message or email to someone in another country. And every time you visit a website your location, your browsing history and other metadata can be collected by the little-known Communications Security Establishment Canada.

All of this is illegal according to BC Civil Liberties Association which filed a lawsuit in BC Supreme Court Tuesday.

“Unaccountable and unchecked government surveillance presents a grave threat to democratic freedoms,” says Joseph Arvay, Q.C., lawyer for the BC Civil Liberties Association.

"We are deeply concerned that CSEC (Communications Security Establishment Canada) is gaining secret, illegal access to the private communications of ordinary Canadians," said Arvay.

CSEC, which will soon be housed the most expensive government building ever constructed (almost $1.2 billion), is Canada's $350 million-a-year counterpart to the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA).

In recent months the NSA has received much media attention after whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked secret NSA documents. Those documents revealed the extensive surveillance the NSA undertakes including tracking the calls of almost every American citizen and spying on a vast but unknown number of Americans’ international calls, text messages, and emails.

Turns out CSEC also spies on Canadian citizens but unlike the NSA no court or committee  oversees its operations. Canada's other big spy agency, the $500-million-a-year Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) has its activities monitored by an independent  committee.

CSEC is a military spy agency and has no such overview. The Minister of National Defence calls all the shots and issues directives in secret.

However a Nov 21, 2011 directive that became public revealed that then Minister Peter Mackay approved the collection and analysis of metadata. This is information that is automatically produced each and every time a Canadian uses a mobile phone or accesses the internet. [See Guardian's Guide to Metadata]

"Metadata information can reveal the most intimate details of Canadians’ personal lives, including relationships, and political and personal beliefs," said David Martin, lawyer for the BCCLA.

Canadians should be able to use the internet "without the government snooping on our personal information and monitoring our behaviour online," Martin said in a Vancouver press conference Tuesday.

The spy agency is allowed to capture the communications of Canadians at home and abroad if the collection relates to obtaining “foreign intelligence.” CSEC shares this information with foreign intelligence entities in the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia.

Arvay says CSEC's domestic spying infringes on Canadians rights of freedom of expression.

"Canadians are going to censor themselves fearing their communications will be intercepted," he said.

It's "unbelievable there is no judicial oversight of CSEC" said Caily DiPuma, Counsel for the BCCLA.

"Canadians have a right to privacy. We have no idea what CSEC is doing with their information or how they are interpreting laws," DiPuma said.

No one knows have many Canadians are caught up in the CSEC net said OpenMedia.ca Executive Director Steve Anderson.

OpenMedia fought a successful battle against Bill C30 – the online spying bill. "I was shocked to learn that CSEC is monitoring Canadians online and we're picking up the tab," Anderson said.

"We can’t even tell when we’ve been victimized by it. We strongly support the BCCLA’s court challenge," he said.

OpenMedia has launched a new online sign-up pledge against "out-of-control spying on Canadians.”

Incredibly, CSEC is just the tip of the domestic spying spear for Canadians involved in labour and social justice, indigenous issues, environmental or other organizations the Harper government has labeled as a "threat" to Canada's business interests.

The RCMP, CSIS and others involved in "security intelligence" have been monitoring Canadians involved in various non-governmental organizations such as environmental groups said Jeffrey Monaghan of the Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario.

Protests and opposition to Canada's resource-based economy, especially oil and gas production, are now viewed as threats to national security, Monaghan said.

Based on security documents just released under freedom of information laws, CSIS has likely created a wide-ranging surveillance net in partnership with the private sector he said.

One Feb 2011 document reads: "…the private sector is ideally suited to provide the Service (CSIS) with unsolicited, but potentially valuable street-level information."

Later the document notes that the private sector can violate Canada's privacy laws "for reasons of law enforcement, national security, defense of Canada, conduct of international affairs…"

Part II will look at the role of the private sector, including energy companies, in working with law enforcement to spy on and punish individuals and organizations involved in legal, democratic activities. 

Image Credit: CSEC Common Criteria icon

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We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

But here’s the thing: just two per cent of The Narwhal’s readers step up to keep our stories free for all to read. Will you join the two per cent and become a member of The Narwhal today?

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