June 6, 2013 11:30 pm
Updated: June 6, 2013 11:45 pm

Are federal spy agencies monitoring Canadians’ communications

A woman uses her phone while walking past a Verizon Store on June 6, 2013 in the SoHo neighborhood of New York City.

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

VANCOUVER – Canadians might not have as much to be concerned about as their U.S. neighbours when it comes to worrying about who may be monitoring telephone usage habits, but good luck trying to find out if the government’s intelligence agencies are keeping tabs on who you’re calling.

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Halifax-based privacy lawyer David Fraser said it would probably take a whistleblower – like the one who leaked secret court documents to the Guardian – for anyone to find out about it.

There are renewed privacy concerns following revelations in the Guardian that the National Security Agency (NSA) is, under the Obama administration, requiring telephone service provider Verizon to hand over information on all domestic and foreign telephone calls made by its customers.

That includes phone numbers and duration of the call, but not the content of the communication.

READ MORE: Cellphone snooping outrages Americans

Fraser said if the government is monitoring Canadian phone calls in the same manner, they should know and they should be upset about it.

The U.S. government made it a law that the Federal Bureau of Investigation could request such information when it enacted the USA Patriot Act in 2001.

For those that don’t know, the USA Patriot Act is an acronym for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.

“By and large, Canadian national security legislation is surprisingly similar to U.S. national security legislation, including the USA Patriot Act,” Fraser said in a phone interview.

Canada doesn’t have a Patriot Act. But, it does have the Anti-Terrorism Act, also passed in 2001, and a counterpart to the NSA — Communications Security Establishment Canada.

The agency provides three services to the federal government: foreign intelligence, the protection of electronic information and communication, and offering technical and operational assistance to CSIS and the RCMP.

Global News contacted the Office of the Commissioner of Communications Security Establishment – an arms length monitor –and asked if CESC could demand Canadian telecommunications companies to supply similar information to what the NSA ordered Verizon to hand over.

Spokesperson Bill Galbraith said his office was “limited” in what it could say on the matter, but said the commissioner’s mandate is to “examine activities to ensure they they conform with the law and protect privacy.”

Galbraith could not comment on whether a Canadian government agency could request telecommunication data in the same manner the U.S. did.
Fraser said the NSA was conducting a “fishing expedition,” in the sea of Verizon’s telephone customers, to “[cast] a net and suck up as much information as they can possibly get their hands on, in order to presumably do some pretty high-level and sophisticated analysis of the information in order to combat terrorism.”

He said the order, published in the Guardian, was too broad of an “expedition” to be allowed under Canadian law, and one that maybe even goes beyond U.S. law. Fraser also suspects Verizon wasn’t singled out and other telecommunications companies were most likely under similar orders.

NSA had to go to a secret court, called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court (FISA) to request the order for Verizon’s “telephony metadata,” as it was called.

Fraser said Canada has one of those courts, although it’s more a group of designated judges who meet in Ottawa that assess applications from CSIS to obtain warrants.

“Whether or not that court, the Canadian court, could grant an order as broad as that and do so lawfully… I would suggest they wouldn’t be able to,” Fraser said.

READ MORE: Obama administration defends collecting phone records

In Canada, we do have an additional “check and balance” — an agency called the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) – which oversees CSIS to make sure the privacy rights of Canadians aren’t being infringed upon.

He said SIRC issues an annual report, part of the report is public and the other part is classified.

“There is not enough transparency into what is going on to either confirm or deny whether activities like this are happening in Canada,” Fraser said. “The more transparency the better.”

“You don’t want to jeopardize individual operations,” he said. “[But] if you’re intercepting every Canadian’s communications or at least information about those communications, 99.99 per cent of the stuff that’s being collected is about completely innocent Canadians. And I have a problem with that.”

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