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Eavesdropping agency must be more transparent with Canadians: watchdog

File photo of a woman texting. THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Jeff McIntosh

The federal privacy watchdog says the government’s electronic eavesdropping agency should tell Canadians more about what it’s doing.

Communications Security Establishment Canada — caught in the unprecedented glare of international intelligence leaks — should table an annual public report in Parliament describing its ongoing activities, says interim privacy commissioner Chantal Bernier.

Bernier also recommended Tuesday that CSEC disclose annual statistics on cases in which it assists other federal agencies with requests for interception, which can include monitoring of Canadians.

The recommendations are among several intended to bolster protection of privacy rights in national security efforts.

“In our view, the current Canadian system of intelligence oversight would operate better if fine-tuned to new operational realities,” says Bernier’s special report.

Ottawa-based CSEC monitors foreign computer, satellite, radio and telephone traffic of people, states, organizations and terrorist groups for information of intelligence interest to Canada.

Its role has come under intense scrutiny due to leaks by Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the National Security Agency, CSEC’s much larger American counterpart.

The latest revelation, published this week by the Guardian newspaper, suggests CSEC helped British ally Government Communications Headquarters tap into Android smartphones.

Material disclosed by the whistleblower last year indicated that Canada helped the United States and Britain spy on participants at the London G20 summit in 2009. Other documents from Snowden’s cache suggested CSEC once monitored Brazil’s department of mines and energy.

Bernier’s report says the traditional divide between foreign and domestic threats has eroded in the digital era.

Moreover, telecommunications companies have been drawn into the web of intelligence-gathering on behalf of Canadian spy services, the report notes, creating a need for proper privacy protection.

“While secrecy may be an inherent aspect of many intelligence activities, so is accountability,” the report says.

“National security claims do not reduce accountability obligations and security bodies must account to Canadians for what they do with personal information.”

The report also calls for:

  • Strengthening the powers of the federal bodies that review national security operations;
  • modernization of the Privacy Act — passed three decades ago — to allow the privacy commissioner to co-operate with other oversight bodies on national security issues; and
  • a public status report on the recommendations of the Air India bombing inquiry as well as those of the policy review stemming from the overseas torture of Maher Arar.