Project Levitation and your privacy: Politicians call for cybersurveillance oversight

Canadian politicians are calling for heftier intelligence oversight after the revelation that Canada's cybersleuthing capabilities include a mass surveillance project dubbed "Levitation."

Surveillance meant to protect homeland security may not protect Canadians' privacy rights

Some politicians are calling for heavier oversight of the Communications Security Establishment's eavesdropping service that accesses everyday Canadians' online activity. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Canadian politicians called for heftier intelligence oversight Wednesday after a CBC News special investigation in collaboration with the U.S.-based publication The Intercept revealed Canada's cybersleuthing capabilities include a mass surveillance project dubbed "Levitation."

In the project, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), Canada's electronic spy agency, sifts through millions of videos and documents downloaded online every day by people around the world.

Politicians reacted with arguments on varying degrees of oversight needed for projects like Levitation, to make sure Canadians' privacy is protected while also making sure Canada's homeland security is protected.

Independent commissioner 

The CSE and Associate Minister of National Defence Julian Fantino argue these surveillance practices are in accordance with the law and sufficient oversight already exists.

The secretive headquarters of the Communications Security Establishment is located at a complex in Ottawa. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Those defending CSE's intelligence practices say sufficient oversight is provided by Jean-Pierre Plouffe, who has been the Canadian government’s independent spy watchdog since 2013.

"In accordance with the law, data collection is focused on foreign entities to protect Canadians against cyberattacks," the associate minister of national defence, Julian Fantino, told CBC News in a written statement. "The independent CSE commissioner constantly and thoroughly scrutinizes CSE's activities. The CSE commissioner has never found CSE to have acted unlawfully, and has noted CSE's respect for the privacy of Canadians.

"Our government will not sit idly by while terrorists use websites to attract, radicalize, and train individuals who threaten our values and freedom."

In the process though, average Canadians are being watched, too, and some in government are not as confident in the level of oversight on Levitation.     

Parliamentary oversight         

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said Wednesday that the agency needs "proper" oversight, including civilian watchdogs and Parliamentary oversight.

"That's something that the Liberal Party has been calling for, for a long time," he said. "We continue to believe that strong oversight, like all of our Five Eyes partners have, is going to be important in this area."

Electronic spy agencies all over the world have been collecting massive amounts of information on citizens, raising questions about government intrusion into people's privacy. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)

CSE is a key player in the Five Eyes surveillance network along with the U.S., the U.K., Australia and New Zealand.

"This story, as you know, is just coming to light," Trudeau said. "We have very serious concerns about how this government is going about keeping Canadians safe. And I do think that it is the time to talk about proper oversight to make sure that government is behaving responsibly."

Liberal defence critic Joyce Murray argued that the current laws governing the CSE are not up to snuff, as things have changed in terms of the capabilities of electronic communications since the laws were written.

"Metadata is actually not covered under our laws. So CSE can do what it wants with regards to collecting, storing, analyzing and using metadata because our laws are out of date," she said.

"Coming out of the attacks of Oct. 22 there was a lot of commentary that as the government moves to tighten up security, they need to also look at the provisions to protect individual privacy. And they need to make sure that they're adequate. And the government has failed to do that."

NDP calls for special commission

The NDP wants a special commission set up to make sure Canadians' privacy is protected.

"Where is that information going? Who's collecting it? What are they doing with it? … And are they going too far? That bothers me in a free and democratic society. So let's have a look. Let's set up a committee," said NDP defence critic Jack Harris.

"CSE doesn't have, along with many other agencies, the proper level of oversight. And we've got to ramp that up in a very big way."

Under Levitation, analysts with the electronic eavesdropping service can access information on about 10 to 15 million uploads and downloads of files from free websites each day, the original documents obtained by U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden say.

NDP MP Élaine Michaud, who represents Valcartier, questioned how the government can ensure it's respecting Canadians' right to privacy with the sheer volume of downloads being inspected.

"With 10 to 15 million downloads inspected each day, that seems enormous," she said during question period in Parliament on Wednesday. "Is the government ensuring that Canadians' personal activities are not being monitored or even spied on?"

National security expert Wesley Wark said the Levitation documents clearly demonstrate the CSE's abilities. But he also warns the tool has the potential to be "hugely intrusive."

A growing number of Canadians are also concerned about privacy, according to a new survey commissioned by the federal privacy commissioner.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada released a survey of over 1,500 people on Wednesday, as Canadians were learning more about Levitation.

"They will say that this is just metadata, but we know and experts have repeatedly warned that metadata can be hugely revealing about people's lives when it's collected in bulk like this," said David Christopher, spokesman for the internet advocacy group OpenMedia.

On mobile? Click here for Levitation file

With files from CBC's David Seglins, Amber Hildebrandt and Michael Pereira