One of Canada's top spy agencies, Communications Security Establishment Canada, is violating privacy rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, according to a lawsuit filed by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and the OpenMedia organization.

Speaking on Tuesday morning in Vancouver, representatives for the two civil rights groups said the broad and unchecked surveillance of Canadians by the spy agency is unconstitutional.

The lawsuit argues two aspects of CSEC's operations violate the charter's protections against unreasonable search and seizure, and infringe on free expression, including:

  • The interception of the private communications of Canadians.
  • The sweeping collection of metadata information produced by Canadians in their everyday activities online and through phone conversations.

A spokeswoman for CSEC, Lauri Sullivan, issued a short response to the allegations.

"Under the law, this organization is prohibited from targeting Canadians."

CSEC reports to the minister of defence and describes itself as "Canada’s national cryptologic agency."

It supplies two main services: foreign signals intelligence, which means monitoring electronic communications emanating from abroad, and protecting domestic electronic information and communication.

Electronic eavesdropping raises concerns

According to a statement released by the BCCLA on Tuesday, CSEC's powers to monitor Canadians' communications with persons outside Canada are too broad and too cloaked in secrecy.

"When seeking to intercept the content of Canadians’ emails, text messages and phone calls, the agency must seek a ministerial authorization from the Minister of National Defence. The Minister’s authorizations permit for broad collection of Canadians’ personal communications and are entirely secret," said the statement.

BCCLA, OpenMedia say CSEC is illegally spying on Canadians

Steve Anderson, executive director of OpenMedia.ca, and BCCLA representatives Caily DiPuma, David J. Martin, Joe Arvay and Josh Paterson, right to left, were in Vancouver on Tuesday morning to speak about their lawsuit against Communications Security Establishment Canada. (CBC)

"CSEC also operates under a ministerial directive, issued by the Minister of National Defence in 2011, that allows it to collect and analyze the metadata information that is automatically produced each and every time a Canadian uses a mobile phone or accesses the internet. This private metadata includes the exact geographic location of the mobile phone user, records of phone calls and Internet browsing."

BCCLA lawyer David J. Martin said, "This kind of wholesale surveillance is fundamentally incompatible with Canadian law.”

“Metadata information can reveal the most intimate details of Canadians’ personal lives, including relationships, and political and personal beliefs. The majority of Canadians use the internet and telecommunications on a daily basis, and we should be able to do so without the government snooping on our personal information and monitoring our behaviour online."

Joseph Arvay, a lawyer for the BCCLA, said the "unaccountable and unchecked government surveillance presents a grave threat to democratic freedoms.”

“We are deeply concerned that CSEC is gaining secret, illegal access to the private communications of ordinary Canadians, and there are no reasonable safeguards in place to monitor its activities. We know from the experiences of other countries that government agencies have a tendency to push and even break the boundaries of spying unless they are checked.”

CSEC headquarters under construction

The new Communications Security Establishment headquarters, seen in an aerial photo during construction, is set to open next year - but access to the top-secret facility will be tightly controlled. (Plenary Group Canada)

OpenMedia.ca executive director Steve Anderson said his organization, which campaigns to "ensure the internet is open, affordable, and surveillance-free," has launched a national public outreach campaign calling on all Canadians to show their support for the BCCLA’s case.

“CSEC spying is secretive, expensive and out of control,” said Anderson.

“We’re talking about a secretive agency having the power to spy on the private lives of any resident of Canada, at any time, and we can’t even tell when we’ve been victimized by it.”