CSEC oversight bill garners support from gun owner's group

As she prepares to make her case for her backbench bid to force Canada's electronic intelligence-gathering agency to shed more light on its operations, Liberal MP Joyce Murray has garnered the support of at least one unlikely ally.

Liberal MP Joyce Murray's bid to increase transparency, parliamentary input hits House floor tonight

A Liberal MP wants to lift the curtain on the inner workings of Canada's electronic spy service. (CBC)

A backbench bid to force Canada's electronic intelligence-gathering agency to shed more light on its operations has garnered the support of at least one unlikely ally.

The National Firearms Association — not a group that often finds itself aligned with the Liberal Party —  went public with its endorsement of Liberal MP Joyce Murray's private members' bill earlier this week.

"We are very concerned about the lack of oversight of our intelligence gathering agencies’ activities and the potential for abuse of metadata collection," noted NFA president Sheldon Clare in a written statement posted to the association website. 

"Firearm owners are already very familiar with how this sort of data collection can be abused to target individuals and groups of individuals for dubious purposes."

Murray's bill represents "a reasonable attempt to return the oversight of intelligence gathering activities to the elected representatives of the people," Clare added.

"We believe that this is the best way to go."

Bill to be debated on Thursday

On Thursday night, Murray will get her first opportunity to convince her Commons colleagues to back her proposal. Murray initially brought the bill forward last February following reports that Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) had surreptitiously monitored internet traffic on publicly available WiFi services at Canadian airports. 

One provision in Murray's bill may get additional focus in the wake of Public Safety Minister Steve Blaney's proposed police anti-terror power boost: namely, the creation of a new parliamentary committee to keep tabs on national security issues, including legislation, policy and agency operations. 

Under Blaney's bill, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) would be given a freer hand to monitor and track suspected terrorists, as well as share information with its counterparts within the so-called "Five Eyes" countries: Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.

That, in turn, has renewed calls to beef up the existing oversight mechanisms — which is precisely what Murray's bill would do.

Murray may also find her arguments for making CSEC share more details of its surveillance operations bolstered by the latest report from Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien. The report includes a legal and technical overview detailing potential concerns over the quantity of personal information that can be revealed through metadata.

"Government institutions that collect or are considering collecting such information should not underestimate what metadata can reveal about an individual," the report notes. 

"The same goes for private-sector organizations that are requested to disclose such data to government institutions, including law enforcement agencies." 

As such, it concludes: "Given the ubiquitous nature of metadata and the powerful inferences that can be drawn about specific individuals, government institutions and private-sector organizations will have to govern their collection and disclosure activities according to appropriate processes and standards that are commensurate with the potential level of sensitivity of metadata in any given set of circumstances."

Bill could be blocked from final passage

Even if she's able to win a few converts on the Conservative side of the House, however,  Murray may still need the official endorsement of the government — and, specifically, a ministerial co-sponsor — to see her bill passed at third reading. 

Earlier this month, House of Commons Deputy Speaker Bruce Stanton warned Murray that her bill could ultimately be blocked from a final House vote due to concerns that it might cost money to put it into effect. 

Under House rules, a private members' bill can only impose an expenditure on the federal treasury if it has a Royal Recommendation, or ministerial endorsement, which doesn't appear to be forthcoming.

"There is robust oversight of national security agencies in Canada," Public Safety spokesman Jason Tamming told CBC News last week.

"We don't need to strike any new committees to create duplicative oversight."

Debate on the bill begins tonight, and will continue for a second hour later this fall, after which it will be put to a vote.