Canadian government finds support for Internet surveillance scheme

Published 29 October 2009

The Canadian federal government wants to broaden its Internet surveillance capabilities; the Security Intelligence Review Committee, the watch-dog over Canada’s spy agencies, supports the idea

The Canadian federal government has an unexpected ally in its bid to broaden Internet surveillance — the watchdog over Canada’s spy agency. In its annual report Wednesday, the Security Intelligence Review Committee says CSIS’s “ability to perform certain investigative procedures will be constrained” until the government enacts new laws.

The review committee reports to Parliament each year on the activities of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

CTV news reports that the government has tabled legislation that would require telecommunications service providers to include intercept capabilities in their networks, making it easier for CSIS to gain access to emails and phone conversations. It would also allow authorities to obtain information about subscribers and their mobile devices without a warrant.

Opponents have raised concerns about the scope of information involved and how it would be used.

The review committee, however, points out that governments in the United States and Europe have already passed laws requiring co-operation between security agencies and online service providers.

The committee does believe that the service needs that tool to carry out the mandate that they’ve been asked to do,” said Steve Bittle, a review committee spokesman. Bittle said he could not elaborate because the technical issues in question “are very sensitive matters.”

The review committee reached its conclusion after studying CSIS’s scientific and technical services branch, which has specialists in forensics, mechanical engineering, programming and lab analysis. The report says intelligence technology is a “complex business” that requires continued access to new talent and innovative research, as well as the ability to develop products in a timely way on a tight budget.

The committee acknowledges that Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart has argued against the so-called “lawful access” legislation, saying it “raises fundamental issues for rights such as privacy and the ability to communicate freely.”

The committee report says “it is important that Canadians engage in a healthy debate” on the issue. “However, SIRC is concerned that (the intelligence service’s) ability to perform certain investigative procedures will be constrained until the government is successful in enacting appropriate legislation.”

Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan welcomed the spy watchdog’s position on the telecommunications monitoring bill working its way through Parliament.

Our government has introduced legislation to update the tools our law enforcement and national security agencies need to prevent threats to our national security, including terrorism. “High-tech criminals must be met by high-tech police.”

CSIS had no immediate comment on the report. Director Richard Fadden is scheduled to make his first public speech as head of the spy service in Ottawa on Thursday.