Just how worried should Canadians be at the growth of the surveillance state under nearly a decade of Conservative rule? Plenty worried, given the unsettling reports of agency wrongdoing that have surfaced in recent days.
Both of the nation’s spy agencies were outed by their official Ottawa watchdogs this past week for breaching Canadians’ privacy rights, and for snooping on taxpayers without warrants. Worse still, the Conservatives actively swept some of this rule-breaking under the rug while they were still in office.
All this underscores the urgency of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s push to give Parliament robust cross-party oversight with respect to these agencies, and to rein in the sweeping powers agencies they wield under the draconian Anti-Terrorism Act. His promised overhaul is sorely needed.
In a major invasion of privacy in 2013 and 2014 the Communications Security Establishment, our super-secret electronic eavesdropping agency, broke the law by sharing Canadians’ “metadata” — Internet telecom trails including phone logs, phone numbers or email addresses — with foreign allies. By law, the CSE is supposed to “minimize” such data before sharing it, to protect peoples’ privacy. They didn’t, in what has been blamed on an inadvertent software glitch. And we only learned out it this past week.
While CSE told the Conservative government about this security breach years ago, it never shared that information with public.
The Canadian Security Intelligence Service, meanwhile, has been exposed for wrongdoing in two areas. In seeking warrants from judges for clandestine surveillance activities, it was less than “fully transparent” in telling them it intended to retain metadata from intercepts on people it hadn’t specifically targeted — data that judges would have expected to be destroyed. As well, CSIS has been trolling the Canada Revenue Agency’s files for information on taxpayers without court-approved warrants.
Both agencies are banned from spying on Canadians without proper warrants, as they keep watch for potential terrorism, foreign espionage, cyber attacks and other threats.
Even giving every benefit of the doubt to CSIS and CSE, this pattern of negligence, overreach or outright abuse is troubling. So was the Conservative silence. As the Star has argued before, our spies, police, border agents and the like must respect the law as they wield their sweeping powers.
These revelations validate the Trudeau government’s push to set up a cross-party committee of Parliament to oversee security-related issues. The robust British model provides active “oversight,” not just retrospective review. It covers the full spectrum of security agencies. And it can probe policy, administration, spending and operational activities by holding investigations, questioning ministers and reviewing highly secret documents.
Canada needs a panel with similar remit.
As well, Trudeau is committed to consulting widely on the Anti-Terrorism Act, with a view to rolling back its worst excesses. That includes conscripting judges to authorize violations of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and other laws. Ottawa also intends to tighten information-sharing, to better protect privacy. And the government is open to having Parliament review the act after three years, and to impose sunset clauses on some provisions.
Going forward, future governments and their security services will have a harder time covering up mistakes or abuses, if the Liberals press ahead with these and other reforms. That can only strengthen public confidence in the agencies that operate in the shadows to protect us.