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Revelations of CSE sharing metadata with NSA for years underlines need for far tighter oversight

Information handed over to the NSA and other foreign agencies can reveal the most intimate details of a Canadian’s private life.

It has just been revealed that the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) illegally shared Canadians’ private phone logs and Internet data with their counterparts at the U.S. National Security Agency and other foreign spy agencies. The revelation, contained in a secret report by the CSE’s official watchdog, was reported by The Globe and Mail.

Experts have long warned that the information that the CSE handed to the NSA and other agencies — users’ metadata — can be used to paint a detailed picture of an individual’s personal life, including health issues, financial status, sexual orientation, and employment. The watchdog’s report reveals that phone records have been shared since 2005, with Internet logs being shared since 2009.

Sadly, this is not the first revelation that our most intimate information is being collected and stored by the government. However it is an even more extreme violation of our privacy that this information was then shared with the NSA and other foreign spy agencies, despite years of official assurances to the contrary.

This development only further underscores the critical need for a comprehensive overhaul of the oversight and review mechanisms for Canadian spy agencies. These requirements are all the more pressing given the recent significant expansion of CSE’s surveillance powers as a result of Bill C-51.

In March, a diverse range of civil society organizations sent Public Minister Ralph Goodale a letter setting out the necessary components of an effective and integrated national security accountability framework for Canada. Minister Goodale is expected to announce measures to boost oversight mechanisms before Parliament rises for its summer recess on June 23.

Canadians are working together for stronger privacy safeguards at

What the experts say about Metadata

  • Former Ontario Privacy Commission Ann Cavoukian: “Government surveillance programs, however, gather and analyze our metadata for different purposes. Armed with this data, the state has the power to instantaneously create a detailed digital profile of the life of anyone swept up in such a massive data seizure. Once this data is compiled and examined, detailed pictures of individuals begin to emerge. The data can reveal your political or religious affiliations, as well as your personal and intimate relationships.”

  • Citizen Lab’s Professor Ron Deibert: Metadata is "way more powerful than the content of communications. You can tell a lot more about people, their habits, their relationships, their friendships, even their political preferences, based on that type of metadata."

  • ACLU policy attorney Chris Conley: “Government agencies from the NSA to local law enforcement have taken advantage of weak protections for "metadata" — including records about your phone calls, emails, purchases, location and more — to build huge databases about ordinary Americans. In thousands of cases, this information has been inappropriately accessed, potentially exposing a vast array of information about individuals: their attendance at a gay rights rally or addiction support group, their purchase of a home pregnancy test or a dating service subscription, or their calls to a suicide hotline or a job recruiter.”

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