OTTAWA – A federal review of national security will consider whether Canada’s spy service should be able to sift through the kind of personal data it kept illegally for years, says Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale.
Goodale said Friday the notion that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service should avoid stashing away information about innocent people is a “fundamental principle of Canadian privacy.”
But the minister appeared to leave the door open to one day giving CSIS the legal authority to keep and analyze electronic data about individuals who do not pose a security threat.
“I want to hear the professional advice on both sides,” Goodale told a news conference in the foyer of the House of Commons. “I’m not pre-empting the consultation.”
WATCH: Government not sure how many Canadians had data collected by CSIS over last 10 years
A Federal Court judge says CSIS violated the law by keeping potentially revealing electronic data about people who were not targets of investigation over a 10-year period.
In a pointed ruling made public Thursday, Justice Simon Noel said CSIS breached its duty to inform the court of its data-collection program, since the information was gathered using judicial warrants.
CSIS crunched the data beginning in 2006 using a powerful program known as the Operational Data Analysis Centre to produce intelligence that can reveal specific, intimate details about people, the judge said.
The improperly retained material was metadata – information associated with a communication, such as a telephone number or email address, but not the message itself. It is believed to have included data trails related to people such as friends or family members who knew the targets of surveillance but were not themselves under investigation.
The ruling means metadata can now be kept and used by CSIS only if it relates to a specific threat to Canadian security or if it is of use to an investigation, prosecution, national defence or foreign affairs.
In a hastily assembled news conference Thursday after the decision become public, CSIS director Michel Coulombe said the spy service had halted all access to, and analysis of, the data in question while it thoroughly reviews the court decision.
Goodale said he became aware of the “full scope of the issue” when the court judgement was made available to him in preliminary form a couple of weeks ago.
He said he took the immediate step of informing the Security Intelligence Review Committee, the watchdog over CSIS, and asked the review committee to supervise management of the data and ensure full compliance with the judgment.
Coulombe “understands my expectations here,” Goodale added.
“A serious error has been made. This situation needs to be remedied. It has to be remedied quickly.”
The NDP said Friday the revelations underscore the need for stronger parliamentary oversight.
The New Democrats are pushing for changes to a bill that would create a committee of parliamentarians to keep an eye on CSIS and other spy services. NDP MP Murray Rankin said the proposed model would allow the government to arbitrarily deny crucial information to the committee.
Goodale flatly rejected the criticism, saying the committee would have extraordinary authority to look at classified information.