Canada’s privacy watchdogs silent on NSA program that could be violating the rights of millions

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      Government agencies tasked with protecting Canadian’s privacy are refusing to speak on the U.S. government's newly revealed surveillance operations.

      The Obama administration has been widely condemned for collecting data on millions of people around the world.

      However, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada and the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for British Columbia declined to answer questions about how the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) could be violating the rights of Canadians.

      The Canadian Security Intelligence Service did not respond to an interview request by deadline.

      Meanwhile, privacy advocates and data watchdogs such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation have warned it is “without a doubt” the NSA is collecting massive amounts of data about Canadian citizens.

      On June 6, the Washington Post and Guardian newspapers revealed that an NSA surveillance program named PRISM is being used to collect user data from several of the largest service providers on the Internet.

      For several years, the NSA has had direct access to servers operated by Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple. That provides the NSA with access to poplar communication services such as Gmail, Hotmail, and Skype. The U.S. government has been collecting emails, chat logs, videos, photographs, documents, and social network details, among other categories of data.

      “They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type,” reads a quote attributed to the U.S. intelligence officer who leaked the information to the Post.

      All nine companies named in the leaked NSA documents have issued statements denying cooperating with the NSA, and gone further to claim they had no knowledge of PRISM’s existence until it was reported on by the media.

      U.S. President Barack Obama was steadfast in his defence of the intelligence programs, which go far beyond the scope of any previous surveillance activities in the country’s history, especially in terms of domestic spying.

      He acknowledged PRISM’s existence, but stressed that it was approved by Congress, and is being used to target foreigners, not residents of the United States.

      Privacy watchdogs and advocates for Internet users are warning that the data of millions of Canadians is likely being swept up in PRISM’s “dragnet” approach to intelligence gathering.

      “In all likelihood, the NSA has what amounts to a comprehensive dossier on every Canadian who uses any of these services,” said Nate Cardozo, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

      He emphasized that the PRISM program should be especially troubling to Canadians, because the U.S. government does not apply the same privacy safeguards to data on non-U.S. citizens that it does to information about Americans.

      “Under the law that we understand is being used to justify this program, which is section 702 of FISA, no legal protections whatsoever are being afforded to the data of non-U.S. persons,” Cardozo explained.

      He also called attention to the historically close relationship between U.S. and Canadian intelligence agencies, noting that it would not be out of the ordinary for Canadian spies to have some level of access to the data being collected by PRISM. (The Guardian has already reported that the NSA’s counterpart in the United Kingdom, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), has been using PRISM to gathering intelligence on British citizens.)

      In the same 24-hour period that news of PRISM broke, the Guardian and then the Wall Street Journal reported that the NSA has been monitoring customer records and collecting metadata from all major telecommunications providers in the United States. “The arrangement with Verizon, AT&T and Sprint, the country's three largest phone companies means, that every time the majority of Americans makes a call, NSA gets a record of the location, the number called, the time of the call and the length of the conversation,” the Journal wrote.

      Micheal Vonn, policy director for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, told the Straight that the degree to which U.S. and Canadian telecommunications infrastructures are enmeshed, combined with the popularity of the online services tapped by the NSA, means Canadians are directly affected by the PRISM program.

      “The ramifications of this are so vast it is hard to even know where to begin,” she said. “We’re getting to the place, honestly, where it’s ludicrous to talk about paranoia. There are no [conspiracy] theories, there are only facts.”

      Vonn recounted how the U.S. government devotes “special attention” to Canada on account of the border it shares with the United States.

      “This is not targeted surveillance, where there is a reason to be suspicious about something and so you look into x, y, and z,” she said. “‘This is population-based dragnet surveillance.”

      Cara McGregor, communications officer for the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for British Columbia, referred the Straight’s request for an interview to his counterpart at the federal level.

      At the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, communications officer Scott Hutchison responded with an email stating that a representative would not be made available for an interview.

      “Based on the limited information we have, it is difficult to assess the merit of the allegations and how American law may apply to the situation,” Hutchinson wrote. “Going forward, we plan to express our concerns to and seek information from the Commissioner of the Communication Security Establishment to determine how the personal information of Canadians may be affected.”

      A June 7 headline at states: “Canadians deserve to know if U.S. federal agencies are blanket-monitoring their communications.”

      Lindsey Pinto,’s communications manager, said that at this point, they have more questions than reactions to the news. “We should definitely be looking to our government to be making a commitment to protect our privacy,” she said in a telephone interview.

      Pinto added that it’s unknown whether or not Canadian intelligence agencies have any involvement with the NSA’s PRISM program.

      “We would like the government to come clean on whether or not they do,” she said.


      Tech Companies Concede to Surveillance Program,” published on June 7, 2013, at the New York Times.

      Few options for companies to defy U.S. intelligence demands,” published on June 8, 2013, at Reuters.

      Boundless Informant: the NSA's secret tool to track global surveillance data,” published on June 9, 2013, at the Guardian.

      Edward Snowden: the whistleblower behind the NSA surveillance revelations,” published on June 9, 2013, at the Guardian.

      Data-collection program got green light from MacKay in 2011,” published on June 10, 2013, at the Globe and Mail.

      You can follow Travis Lupick on Twitter at



      George Orwell

      Jun 7, 2013 at 6:59pm

      Welcome to 1984.

      gilbert marks

      Jun 7, 2013 at 10:33pm

      Did ya know that 30 June 2014 is Judgement Day.

      On that day, Derharpenfuhrer will be making available all your "private" Canadian government info to US Homeland Security, for viewing by the border agent in his booth, as you cross the border.

      Should cut down on cross border shopping some eh.

      Justin Flontek

      Jun 8, 2013 at 7:53am

      This is getting bad. Is it going to take a massive revolution to stem the corruption at the top, in both the US and Canada?


      Jun 8, 2013 at 9:10am

      I haven't been to the U.S. in years. With all their increasing Orwell-creep affecting non-U.S. citizens more and more, I'd like to see a major boycott of tourism and trade with the U.S.

      Martin Spacek

      Jun 8, 2013 at 12:37pm

      The author has somewhat misattributed the breaking of the Verizon phone metadata story. AFAIK, that was broken by the Guardian (one of Glenn Greenwald's 3 related pieces on the NSA in about as many days), not the Wall Street Journal. But, it looks like the WSJ has provided additional reporting that says AT&T and Sprint were forced to do the same, as well as credit card companies.

      Travis Lupick

      Jun 8, 2013 at 12:51pm

      Thanks Martin, you are absolutely correct. I've updated the article to acknowledge the Guardian's initial story about Verizon and included a link.

      Hack the planet

      Jun 9, 2013 at 12:25pm

      The exact same thing is happening here, and every other country. There is an entire industry of shady exploit brokers selling 0day to intelligence agencies. There is big business in cracking phones and comms software for spying and data analysis. In fact if you are in a career doing Bioinformatics data crunching odds are some domestic spying government agency will approach you with a job offer to crunch mass communications data instead of genetic data. There's just too much data and not enough algorithms to sort through it all, this (wholesale spying) is a growing and profitable industry.

      Whatever the NSA is up to CSIS and MI5/6 are doing the same thing.


      Jun 9, 2013 at 3:28pm

      The Guardian has now revealed their source of the NSA story, another Bradley Manning, only hopefully 29 year old Edward Snowden will evade jail.


      Jun 9, 2013 at 4:58pm

      One expects that the right would play dirty but to see the leftist media roll over is really disappointing. What does the Obamanation need_ Does he have to physically grab some hair and start scalping these useful tools_


      Jun 9, 2013 at 5:47pm

      ECHELON. That is what makes it "legal" to acquire information on citizens of Canada, US, GB, Australia & New Zealand. ECHELON has Canadians spying on Americans, Brits on Canadians and so on and so on. The entire operation mines all manner of data, Facebook being a favourite for passing along information when asked. Reality is that this surveillance will only get more invasive no matter how many times "privacy " commissions and laws are introduced. The only thing most people can do is reduce the amount of data they provide to the system, the more technically aware can do small things to impede the system, but nothing will stop the system without a violent clash. Given that most protesters here whine when faced with riot police one must assume the power of the state will grow.