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Canada’s Spy Agency Now Intercepting Private Messages 26 Times More Than Previously

Why, you ask? That's a good question.

Photo via Creative Commons

Federal spies in Canada have ramped up the monitoring of phone calls and online messages—but it's not clear why.

Specifically, the foreign intelligence agency, the Canadian Security Establishment (CSE), has increased its interception of Canadians' private messages 26-fold in 2014 to 2015 compared to the year before, according to a report tabled in Parliament last month without fanfare by CSE's external watchdog. While the watchdog concludes that CSE has done nothing wrong, civil liberties experts worry that the agency could possibly be breaching privacy rights, and mishandling data they were never supposed to come across. CSE works with signals intelligence and is the counterpart to the National Security Agency (NSA) in the US. The secretive agency is mandated to gather intelligence from people and entities outside of Canada. It is prohibited from targeting Canadians, or people inside Canada—unless it is doing so under the mandate of another of Canada's spy or law enforcement agencies, or unless the minister specifically permits it. If it happens to encounter any data belonging to Canadians at home or abroad, it's required to report it and "take measures to protect" their privacy. This year's annual report by the Office of the Commissioner of the CSE found that the spy agency intercepted 342 private communications of Canadians from 2014 to 2015, up from just 13 the year before. It's important to note, though, that these communications were intercepted with written approval from the defence minister, who is ultimately responsible for CSE's activities. And the commissioner who wrote the report, retired Quebec judge Jean-Pierre Plouffe, congratulates the agency for doing a fine job, and says it has done everything above board. In an attempt to explain the dramatic spike in Canadian interceptions, Plouffe puts it vaguely: "This was a consequence of the technical characteristics of a particular communications technology and of the manner in which private communications are counted." Plouffe's office did not immediately respond to a request from VICE News to clarify, but told the Ottawa Citizen yesterday that it couldn't elaborate further over concerns it could "reveal CSE operational capabilities." READ MORE: Your Texts Are Not Private, Ontario Court Rules But Brenda McPhail, who runs the privacy, technology, and surveillance project at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said that she's alarmed by the increase in interceptions. "It's really hard to tell what this actually means due to their complete and utter lack of transparency… and there's always been a problem that we don't know what information is being shared with foreign governments," said McPhail. She pointed out that CSE has been caught breaking the law before when it comes to handling Canadians' private data. Earlier this year it was revealed that CSE agents handed over private metadata on Canadians to other allied nations including the US in 2013, but government officials kept that quiet for two years. CSE claims it quickly remedied the situation and informed the defence minister and the oversight commissioner. At the time, the commissioner brushed the data transfer off as "inadvertent." She pointed out that one possible reason for the spike might be new information gathering and sharing capabilities granted to Canada's spy agencies under the federal anti-terror legislation, Bill C-51. But again, it's impossible to know because of the scant details provided in the report. "Instead of having CSE intercepting Canadians as an exception to the rules, it's becoming the norm, and it's more likely that Canadians' privacy is going to be invaded," she warned. For Phil Gurski, a retired intelligence officer with the CSE and Canada's domestic spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the interceptions counted in the report are not surprising. He emphasized that they were obtained with ministerial authorization. "My guess is that you're seeing a reflection of how telecommunications and social media have exploded," he told VICE News. Essentially, the increase could be due to the existence of countless types of social media and messaging platforms. "I would like to think that this shows we have an organization that's very capable and is working collaboratively with its partners on legitimate issues like terrorism and child porn." The Trudeau government campaigned on a promise to overhaul the "problematic" aspects of Bill C-51, but still hasn't said exactly what it will change. In June, the Liberals put forward new legislation to strike a special parliamentary committee to scrutinize national security matters. Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter.