OTTAWA - When a troubled and paranoid owner of an industrial cleaning company suddenly fancies himself an Islamic State warrior and tragically kills a member of the Canadian Armed Forces, it gets that much tougher to push the privacy boulder up the mountain in this country.
When a planted question in the House of Commons allows the minister of public safety to acknowledge an unsubstantiated American report of a planned attack on a shopping mall somewhere in this country, rational discussion becomes more distant.
When our government repeatedly tells us about the threat to this country from savage zealots we have gone to fight, our spy agencies gain new, coveted turf.
This is the price of fear.
But still there are those who will push that boulder, even in an atmosphere when advocates of privacy protection risk accusations of being soft on terror.
No one is diminishing the tragedy of a soldier’s senseless death in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., and no one is arguing against giving our security agencies the tools needed to protect our citizens.
But that should not void a discussion about better oversight.
In the coming days, MPs are scheduled to again consider a bill by Vancouver Liberal Joyce Murray that would provide that oversight for CSEC, the Communications Security Establishment Canada, the quasi-military agency that collects foreign intelligence to guard against terrorism, espionage, cyber attacks or attacks on Canadian interests abroad.
A similar bill was introduced in the Senate by Hugh Segal, the Conservative known as independent voice before his resignation from the upper house last June.
A private member’s bill from a member of the third party normally has the same life span as a snowball on a summer sidewalk in the capital, but in the current atmosphere, this one could melt in January.
As early as Wednesday, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney could table amendments to the act governing CSIS, the domestic spy agency, giving it more power and offering more protection for sources.
But Murray, and University of Ottawa security expert Wesley Wark who helped draft the bill, believe oversight and the limits of the power of CSEC warrant debate.
“I’m hoping people understand the more power the agencies have, the more important it is that there is a clear framework for accountability and transparency,’’ Murray says. “When you have a good framework to protect the freedoms of the individuals of the nation, you have a more effective agency because citizens can trust their privacy is being protected.’’
CSEC monitors Internet traffic and this bill would force the defence minister to seek court permission before he could authorize CSEC to intercept metadata — your Internet footprint — involving Canadians. The bill right now gives Defence Minister Rob Nicholson quasi-judicial power and he need not explain any blanket approval he may give CSEC for interventions.
It boils down to “trust me,’’ says Wark.
But metadata can provide a detailed digital profile of an individual, including where one lives, works and travels, with whom they communicate, their political or religious affiliations.
Right now, CSIS is required to get court approval to wire tap a phone, but no such approval is needed for CSEC to collect metadata.
When its powers were extended in 2001, CSEC was allowed to “inadvertently” collect Canadian communications, although its mandate specifically targets foreign intelligence as part of the Five Eyes, including the security agencies of the U.S., Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
The bill would ultimately provide a new definition of the type of Canadian communication that would be deemed private. It would also establish a new parliamentary committee of three senators and six MPs that would examine CSEC operations and would issue an annual report to the prime minister who would in turn submit it to Parliament.
Such oversight will bring us in line with our major intelligence allies.
Ultimately, it comes down a matter of confidence.
CSEC was established during the Second World War, housed next door to the prime minister’s residence, then on Ottawa’s Laurier Avenue. For more than three decades, Canadians didn’t even know it existed, until its operation was revealed by the CBC.
Its new headquarters is being built for an estimated $1 billion.
Its growth should be accompanied by updated privacy provisions because it can operate more efficiently if Canadians can believe that an independent watchdog is properly guarding their privacy.
Opposition bills will probably not do the trick, but the debate is important, probably never more important than in the current atmosphere in which fear is building and privacy safeguards are collateral damage.