Above: The Chief of the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) John Forster defends the role his organization
VANCOUVER – The man in charge of Canada’s top secret communications surveillance agency says the organization does not target Canadians.
John Forster, Chief of Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), said he couldn’t go into all of the details of what his agency does, but Canadian citizens are not the focus of its surveillance activities.
“I can tell you we do not target Canadians at home and abroad, nor anyone in Canada. In fact, it’s prohibited by law,” Forster said in Toronto on Wednesday — the same day as further revelations about Canada’s espionage activities emerged in media reports.
Documents obtained by the Guardian through the freedom of information act show CSEC shared surveillance and intelligence with energy firms, federal ministries and spy and police agencies during secret meetings.
The Guardian reported the most recent meeting, in May 2013, discussed “security of energy resources development” and was partially sponsored by Enbridge.
Forster said CSEC is acting on behalf of the Canadian government and checks and balances are in place to protect the privacy of Canadians.
“In 2011, we became a stand-alone agency reporting to the Minister of National Defence. And although we are a part of the Defence portfolio, it is critical to know that we work on behalf of all of the government,” he said.
“Everything we do, and I mean everything we do, is reviewed by an independent CSE commissioner,” Forster explained. “He and his office have full access to every record, every system and every staff member to ensure we follow Canadian laws and protect Canadians’ privacy.”
But the revelations about so-called economic espionage were further fodder for Opposition NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, who said the allegations CSEC spied on MME for an industrial advantage are “totally unacceptable.”
“We’re talking about the type of behaviour that we reproach other countries, often countries that have no rule of law, that have no need therefore to respect international norms,” Mulcair said Wednesday. “We’ve put ourselves in that lot with this type of behaviour.”
There is much speculation that this week’s revelations are just the tip of the iceberg about Canada’s spy activities abroad.
The documents obtained by Brazil’s Globo TV came from U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden, who blew the lid off the U.S. National Security Agency’s telecommunications metadata monitoring program in June of this year.
“There’s a lot of other documents about Canadians spying on ordinary citizens, on allied governments, on the world, and their co-operation with the United States government,” Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald — one of the two reporters who broke the Snowden stories — said in CBC interview.
“The nature of that co-operation that I think most Canadian citizens will find quite surprising, if not shocking, because it’s all done in secret and Canadians are not aware of it,” Greenwald said.
But, it’s not really surprising for Montreal-based Internet lawyer Allen Mendelsohn.
“I’m of the opinion that countries and their spy agencies are always spying on each other and it just happened to be that this one just happened to come out thanks to Edward Snowden,” he said in a phone interview with Global News late Tuesday.
“We obviously don’t expect Canada to be monitoring mining ministries in Brazil, I’m really not particularly shocked,” he said.
He explained Canada may not be breaking any international Internet laws, but could quite possibly be “in violation of several diplomatic laws.”
“With respect to technology laws or spying laws, for the most part those are national in scope as opposed to international,” Mendelsohn said. “The Internet and technology crosses borders, but for the most part the law does not.”
The documents cited in the Guardian report published Wednesday did not indicate if any intelligence by CSEC and the documents referenced in the earlier Globo investigation also did not show proof to indicate CSEC monitored the content of MME’s communications.
The allegation is that CSEC monitored the metadata of the communications.
“It’s information about a communication, whereas when you’re talking about a phone tap you’re tapping in order to record an actual conversation and the parallel for an email… you’re getting the actual content of those emails,” he said.
He does not believe Canada is monitoring everyday citizens. He said it wouldn’t be feasible or necessary.
“The fact is governments don’t have the time or resources to create a full nanny state or surveillance state,” he said. “I think there is a lot of paranoia out there and a lot of misinformation out there.”
He said Canadians should be more concerned about oversight of CSEC activities and where they are getting their directives from.
“Normally, to get the content of a phone conversation or the content of an email you would go to a court and ask for a court order that allows you to get that information based on whatever the case may be,” Mendelsohn said.
But, he said Canadians should be demanding more government and judicial oversight.
“That should be people’s concern more than anything,” he said. “The issue is that there is no judge saying you have a valid reason to spy on the Brazilian mining ministry.”
*With files from Adam Frisk and The Canadian Press