OTTAWA — Canada’s electronic spy agency intercepted—and kept—several private communications of Canadians last year in violation of internal policies on personal information.
In his annual report, the watchdog that keeps an eye on Communications Security Establishment Canada says while many of the 66 intercepts involving Canadians were handled properly, some were not.
The findings prompted several recommendations to strengthen privacy protection.
Ottawa-based CSEC monitors foreign communications of intelligence interest to Canada, and exchanges a large amount of information with similar agencies in the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
Leaks from Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the U.S. National Security Agency — CSEC’s American counterpart — have raised questions about operations of the so-called Five Eyes intelligence network.
CSEC insists it targets only foreign email, telephone and satellite traffic.
However, the spy service acknowledges it cannot monitor global communications in the modern era without gathering at least some Canadian information.
In certain cases the defence minister authorizes CSEC activities that would otherwise risk breaching the Criminal Code provision against intercepting the private communications of Canadians.
In his report made public late Wednesday, CSEC watchdog Jean-Pierre Plouffe said the spy agency deletes “almost all” of the small number of such communications it unintentionally intercepts.
It is allowed to use or retain such information only if it is essential to matters of defence, security or international affairs.
Plouffe’s staff looked at all 66 private interceptions from 2012-13, listening to voice recordings, reading written contents or examining written transcripts of the communications. Of these, 41 were used in spy agency reports—with any Canadian identities suppressed—and the remaining 25 kept for future use.
The review revealed instances where CSEC employees did not correctly follow procedures, including:
— One case in which an interception was kept even though it was not essential to defence or security;
— Several interceptions that went unmarked for retention or deletion for weeks;
— Other instances of analysts keeping communications involving Canadians—in some cases for several months—that were no longer essential.
Plouffe recommended five improvements, urging spy service analysts to regularly assess, at minimum four times a year, whether ongoing retention of a private communication is strictly necessary.
Defence Minister Rob Nicholson, the cabinet member responsible for CSEC, accepted the recommendations. The spy agency is working to address them, the watchdog’s report says.
“My office and I will monitor developments,” Plouffe wrote.
CSEC had no immediate comment.