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Guide looks to arm residents with tools to detect online spying

A sign for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service building is shown in Ottawa, Tuesday, May 14, 2013.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association says people who think they've been spied on by federal law enforcement should file access-to-information requests – two months after the association accused the RCMP and CSIS of monitoring opponents of Enbridge's Northern Gateway project.

The association Wednesday unveiled a step-by-step guide that it said would make it easier for people to determine what – if any – information had been collected about them. The online guide explains how to file a request and how to handle further interactions – such as notices for clarification or extension.

"When governments gather information on people who are engaged in democratic participation, it can intimidate them and put a chill on their freedoms. That can't be taken lightly. People need to know about it and access to information is an important, necessary tool in keeping government accountable," Raji Mangat, an association lawyer, told reporters during a conference call.

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The association in February filed complaints against the RCMP and CSIS, saying documents released to the media appeared to indicate covert agents had monitored meetings and other activities of Northern Gateway opponents.

Ms. Mangat said the association has heard from people who were concerned they were being tracked because of their community and political activities. She said those people have the right to know what information was collected about them.

Ben West, of the ForestEthics Advocacy Association, said he's heard similar concerns and the existing access-to-information process can be difficult for people to navigate. He said the civil liberties association's guide is welcome.

Mr. West, who was also on the conference call, said he'll be filing a request for his own file and is curious what it will turn up.

Josh Paterson, the civil liberties association's executive director, said he recently filed his request to Natural Resources Canada, the RCMP, CSIS and the National Energy Board.

He said he's received initial responses, asking for more information, but "hasn't hit pay dirt yet."

Mr. Paterson said the association knows – through the earlier release of documents – that some monitoring occurred. He said questions remain about the extent, and whether it is police business to track lawful democratic activities.

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The RCMP Public Complaints Commission has launched an investigation into the civil liberties association's complaint. The force did not comment on Wednesday's announcement.

Tahera Mufti, a CSIS spokeswoman, said the agency cannot comment once a complaint has been filed to its oversight body, the Security Intelligence Review Committee.

Vincent Gogolek, executive director of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, said in an interview that Wednesday's announcement has little downside.

"It's important for people to be aware of this. If you have a vague unease about government departments and what they have on you and what they're saying about you, well there's a way you can find out. You have a legal right to do this," he said. "Why not exercise that right?"

Mr. Gogolek said the announcement reminded him of the scandal involving the Longitudinal Labour Force File more than a decade ago. Thousands of people demanded to see their files after learning the central database – nicknamed Big Brother – contained information on almost every Canadian, everything from income-tax returns, child-benefit statements, immigration and welfare files and records on employment insurance. The database was dismantled after a public outcry.

"That's something that can happen if enough people get a bee in their bonnet," Mr. Gogolek said.

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The online guide is posted on the civil liberties association's website. It first helps users determine whether to file their request under the Privacy Act, or through access to information. It then tells users how to choose the agency to file a request with, and how much it might cost, among other things.

It also provides tips on how to lower fees associated with the search and how best to respond to a request for clarification.

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