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Canadian anti-terror agencies, law requires oversight

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Earlier this year, new disclosures from U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden unveiled that Canada’s electronic spy agency, the Communications Security Establishment, tracks millions of Internet downloads daily. According to Canada’s public broadcaster, the surveillance agency sifts through millions of videos and documents downloaded online every day by people around the world under a program entitled “Levitation”.

According to the disclosure, the Levitation program monitors downloads in several countries across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and North America.

The agency, which is Canada’s equivalent of the National Security Agency (NSA), stores details about downloads and uploads to and from 100-plus different popular file sharing Web sites. Only three of the Web sites were named: RapidShare, SendSpace, and the now defunct MegaUpload.

According to the disclosure, the Levitation program does not rely on cooperation from any of the file sharing companies. A separate secret operation obtains the data directly from Internet connections that the agency has tapped into. According to the disclosures, the agency then sifts out the unique IP address of each computer that downloaded files from the targeted Web sites.

The Levitation program provides more evidence of governments in North America increasing their use of “Big Data” technologies in order to spy on their citizens.

Canada’s electronic spy organization is currently putting the finishing touches on its new 72,000-square meter US$891-million headquarters in the country’s capital, which is expected to be home to more than 1,800 employees.

Not unlike the National Counterterrorism Center in the United States, the Communications Security Establishment supports the Canadian government’s decision-making process in the areas of national security, national defence and foreign policy.

The Canadian spy agency’s activities are suppose to relate exclusively to foreign intelligence and are directed by the Canadian government’s intelligence priorities. The agency is also involved in receiving and sifting through “Big Data” received from the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center. However, concern has emerged due to the incredibly wide amount of data the agency is collecting.

In a top-secret PowerPoint presentation dating from 2012, an analyst from the agency jokes about how, while hunting for extremists, the Levitation system became clogged with data about downloads of the musical TV series Glee.

Despite the fact that the agency is combing through millions of downloads, according to its own statistics, the CSE only finds 350 downloads of interest each month, which amounts to less than 0.0001 per cent of the total collected data.

While the agency stores this data, there are no protocols surrounding its disposal or further use. Canada also remains one of the only industrialized countries to have a surveillance agency such as the CSE which is not subjected to independent oversight or review.

While CSIS, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the country’s primary national intelligence service is subjected to review by the Security Intelligence Review Committee, the committee itself does have an extensive oversight role or judicial powers.

The results are that Canadians do not have an effective tools to ensure that their privacy is protected, despite the Review Committee’s mandate to ensure that CSIS’s “powers are used legally and appropriately, in order to protect Canadians’ rights and freedoms.”

This fact becomes more worrisome, as the Canadian government recently introduced Bill C-51, to combat terrorism, in the wake of attacks on Canadian soldiers in Quebec and the nation’s parliamentary district late last year and in order to respond to the emergence of the Islamic State terrorist group in Iraq and Syria.

Legal experts have characterized the law as a “blunt instrument” which gives added powers to CSIS, including the power to engage in dirty tricks and disruptive activities. The legislation works to lower the threshold for detaining terror suspects and allows for the arrest of individuals who are suspected of “communicating statements” and knowingly promoting the “commission of terrorists in general.” The law also allows a person suspected of being a “terrorist” and considered at risk to break the law to be placed in jail for a year without trial. Of course, the law is tremendously vague on who constitutes a terrorist.

Since this new law constitutes a massive curb on personal liberties, it would make sense for Canada to adopt substantive judicial oversight over all surveillance agencies, not unlike what occurs in the United States and United Kingdom. The emergence of such anti-terror laws and agencies plainly require substantive oversight in order to be constitutionally in-line with concepts such as freedom and fairness, concepts which such laws and agencies purport to protect.

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