The federal privacy watchdog says she will look into any implications for Canada posed by possible U.S. government snooping on a wide scale.
The issue of data privacy is generating debate in federal circles this week following revelations the U.S. National Security Agency has been tapping into the information banks of American Internet giants.
The office of privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart says the scope of information reportedly being collected raises significant concerns.
Stoddart says while it is difficult to assess the merit of the allegations, she will confer with the watchdog that oversees the Communications Security Establishment — the Canadian counterpart to the NSA — to determine how the personal information of Canadians may be affected.
She also plans to contact fellow international data-protection authorities, who may share similar concerns about the information of their citizens, to discuss combining fact-finding efforts.
The CSE, with headquarters in a plain-looking building in Ottawa's south end, monitors foreign computer, satellite, radio and telephone traffic.
The CSE Commissioner, who keeps tabs on Canada's electronic eavesdropping agency, has been aware of its data-mining activities for at least seven years.
Robert Decary, the retired judge who keeps an eye on Canada's Communications Security Establishment, first examined how the spy outfit uses what is known as metadata in 2006 — and he continues to monitor the programs.
Metadata is information about an email or telephone call, such as the participants, their locations and time of contact.
In December 2011, the CSE advised Decary that Defence Minister Peter MacKay had approved seven new directives to the spy service, including one on the use of metadata gleaned through foreign intelligence gathering.
The directive updated one that had been in place since 2005, though it is not clear why the tweak was necessary.
The document, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act, says the CSE's use of metadata "will be subject to strict conditions to protect the privacy of Canadians, consistent with these standards governing CSE's other programs."
It lists five steps the CSE must take to protect Canadian privacy, though the steps themselves were deleted from the version released under the access law.
Directed at 'foreign threats,' MacKay says
In the House of Commons Monday, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair asked MacKay whether the government was spying on Canadians.
"This program is specifically prohibited from looking at the information of Canadians," MacKay said in response. "This program is very much directed activities outside the country, foreign threats, in fact."
MacKay added in reply to another NDP question that the CSE Commissioner has been reporting use of such information to Parliament for years.
"This is something that has been happening for years and, in fact, ... the commissioner highlighted that the activities were authorized, carried out in accordance with the law, ministerial requirements and CSE's policies and procedures," MacKay said, waving a copy of a CSE Commissioner's annual report.
CSE spokesman Ryan Foreman said last Friday the agency could not comment on its methods, operations or capabilities, but added the agency functions within all Canadian laws.
The CSE has a staff of more than 2,000 — including skilled mathematicians and computer whizzes — and an annual budget of about $400 million.
It is a key element of the intelligence-sharing network known as the Five Eyes — Canada, the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.