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Data breaches renew calls for stricter oversight of Canada’s spy agencies

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale has promised wide-ranging consultations with citizens and stakeholders regarding how Canada runs its intelligence agencies.

Fred Chartrand/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Civil-libertarians are responding to new privacy warnings from spy watchdogs by saying that such cases show that a proposed fix to Canada's intelligence system amounts to a half-measure.

In separate reports on Thursday, watchdogs for Canada's two spy agencies revealed potentially unlawful breaches of Canadians' data. Such cases raise continued accountability questions for the agencies.

The Liberals have vowed to improve transparency by passing laws that would give Parliamentarians a glimpse of classified intelligence programs. Under these new laws, to be introduced by June, select politicians would be afforded some insights into highly secretive agencies, and even get to see how classified intelligence increasingly passes from one spy agency to another.

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The proposed reform, however, does not address concerns raised by the designated watchdogs in the federal bureaucracy that they are legally restricted to examining one intelligence agency each and cannot compare notes.

"Most civil-liberties organizations will be pushing very hard for a [broader] review mechanism as well," said Paul Cavalluzzo, a constitutional lawyer in Toronto. "Our view is that it is clearly needed at this time."

"Review" is the preferred bureaucratic term for the work of the Security Intelligence Review Committee, and the Office of the CSE Commissioner (OCSEC), the federal agencies that determine whether Canada's spies are acting lawfully. SIRC and OCSEC look at spying operations of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the Communications Security Establishment after the fact, by pulling records and conducting interviews.

The reports released this week found broad compliance by these two agencies. Yet, the OCSEC found that CSE, the electronic-eavesdropping agency, unlawfully passed private data about Canadians' telecommunications to allied foreign agencies in 2013. SIRC reported that CSIS officers have kept elements of communications intercepts that Federal Court judges had told them to destroy.

Canada's spy agencies have been expanding their technological surveillance programs and sharing the results among themselves. However, SIRC, OCSEC and Federal Court judges can each see only what one agency is doing.

Often, they cannot even communicate to each other without violating their secrecy oaths. "I have to act in a silo, all the time," said Jean-Pierre Plouffe, the head of OCSEC, told a Parliamentary committee last year.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale has promised wide-ranging consultations with citizens and stakeholders in coming months regarding how Canada runs its intelligence agencies. Scott Bardsley, a spokesman for Mr. Goodale, said on Friday that although the Liberals did not campaign on reforming review bodies, the government would be open to hearing views.

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Mr. Cavalluzzo said he hopes the Liberals will consider broader fixes. A decade ago, he was part of a federal inquiry that recommended a "SuperSIRC" model of expanded bureaucratic review that was never adopted.

"Most, if not all, national security investigations are conducted on an integrated basis," he said.

"If you are going to have effective review, you need a body that has jurisdiction over all the national security agencies."

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About the Author
National security reporter

Focusing on Canadian matters during the past decade, Colin Freeze has reported extensively on the interplay between government, police, spy services, and the judiciary. Colin has twice been to Afghanistan to be embedded with the Canadian military. More

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