Canada's privacy czar says spies should be less secretive

Privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart says Canadians need more information about what the secretive Communications Security Establishment does so they know if their privacy rights are being violated.

Jennifer Stoddart to meet with Communications Security Establishment commissioner

Canada's privacy head, Jennifer Stoddart, says she'll meet with the commissioner who oversees the Communications Security Establishment to discuss how the intelligence agency discloses its activities. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Canada's privacy commissioner says Canadians need to be better informed about what data the country's security agencies are collecting on them.

Jennifer Stoddart plans to meet with the Communications Security Establishment's commissioner, who watches over the secretive government agency that intercepts and monitors foreign telephone and internet signals.

The news comes after American whistleblower Edward Snowden put the debate over privacy and security into the spotlight south of the border.

Stoddart isn't necessarily alarmed by what she knows the Communications Security Establishment is up to, but believes the CSE could loosen up on the secrecy.

"Obviously a lot of this cannot be discussed openly because it is national intelligence information, but [CSE commissioner Robert Décary] himself is calling for more transparency," she said.

'I'm relatively confident CSE is not tracking this conversation. I think all bets are off when it comes to the National Security Agency'—Wesley Wark, U of Ottawa security expert

In his last annual report, Décary describes the "culture of silence that makes one keep quiet even about what is known or what could be made known.

"In my opinion, it is possible, without going into details it would be inappropriate to divulge, to employ simpler and more comprehensible language and thus ensure that public debates are not held on false premises," he wrote.

Stoddart and Décary will meet to discuss ways to improve the CSE's transparency.

"I think it's important for Canadians to have more information about what is really going on," Stoddart said.

Security expert weighs in

Intelligence and security expert Wesley Wark says clear rules on information gathering within Canada get foggy as we start co-operating with our international partners.

"I'm relatively confident CSE is not tracking this conversation. I think all bets are off when it comes to the [U.S.] National Security Agency," Wark said in a telephone interview with CBC News.

The University of Ottawa academic says that when international allies intercept Canadian communications, it creates a problem when that information is pooled — as is often the case.

"There's a huge grey area in the law about what Canadian agencies can do with that information," Wark said.

Stoddart says that type of information gathering through the back door isn't supposed to happen, but she and the CSE commissioner are looking into whether it does.

The findings will be included in the next annual report to Parliament. Where it might go from there is unclear.

In the 18 years since the commissioner for the Communications Security Establishment has been tabling annual reports, Parliament has only asked to look closely at three of them.