A bombshell federal court ruling revealed on Thursday that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), Canada's CIA analogue, operated a secret metadata collection and retention program for a decade.
The Operational Data Analysis Centre (ODAC), a CSIS program that was not known to the public until this court ruling, has been in operation since 2006, the court found, although CSIS did not make courts aware of its existence until this year. This breached the spy agency's "duty of candour," the court ruled.
The ODAC is a "powerful" program, the court's judgement states, and collected and retained information known as metadata. This sort of information would include details like the sender and recipient of an email, for example, but not the contents of the message.
"The end product [of ODAC surveillance] is intelligence which reveals specific, intimate details on the life and environment of the persons the CSIS investigates," the court's ruling states. "The program is capable of drawing links between various sources and enormous amounts of data that no human being would be capable of."
Unlike the Communications Security Establishment, Canada's version of the NSA, CSIS is mandated to spy on Canadians in order to thwart terror attacks.
The ODAC program not only collected metadata from people that CSIS had warrants to surveil, but also collected so-called "associated data," which means information on non-threats or third parties: in other words, citizens not under investigation.
The spy agency is bound by law to only retain data "to the extent that it is strictly necessary," meaning only data related to threats. By retaining the data of people not under investigation, CSIS broke the law, the court ruled, and the data retention was flatly illegal.
"The evolution of technology is no excuse to flout or stretch legal parameters," the court stated. "When the information collected does not fall within the legal parameters delimiting the agency's functions and actions, it cannot legally be retained."
In a call with journalists that included Motherboard, CSIS director Michel Coulombe said that the agency "has halted all access to analysis of associated data while we undertake a thorough review of the system." He emphasized that the collection of the data was legal, even if the court decided that the retention was not.
The revelations about the secret CSIS program are the second act of a shocking week for surveillance news in Canada. Six journalists have been confirmed as subjects of surveillance by Quebec police.
The Liberal government is currently drawing criticism for an ongoing national security consultation that critics see as pushing for new spying powers, instead of soberly assessing the state of Canada's surveillance powers.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.