Canadian spy chief defends wireless metadata collection

Canada’s electronic and intelligence spy agencies have stoutly defended their need and right to collect and process wireless metadata from the signals in the air.

John Forster, who heads Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), told a parliamentary committee this week that the agency has been collecting IP addresses, phone logs and other metadata for a decade, the Globe and Mail reported, all without a judicial warrant because the communications themselves aren’t captured.

His testimony came after a CBC report using information from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden said CSEC had tracked wireless devices from collecting metadata from people’s devices at an unnamed Canadian airport.

Forster said the metadata in that exercise wasn’t for the purpose of monitoring the communications of Canadians but for learning about the possible future use against targets like terrorists. By that definition the collecting of metadata isn’t illegal, he argued.

The metadata also makes sure that CSEC isn’t targeting a Canadian phone number or IP address, which is illegal.

That begs the question of whether even gathering metadata should require a judicial warrant. So far no Canadian government has offered to have a debate on that issue.

You can add your thoughts on the matter below.
Read the Globe story here and the National Post coverage here

In a blog University of Ottawa Internet law professor Michael Geist wasn’t impressed, noting that metadata — which can include geo-location information, call duration, call participants, and Internet protocol addresses — can be used to identify specific persons. “For CSEC to argue that it otherwise does not track Canadians because it only accesses metadata, is misleading at best,” he says.

While the justice minister has to approve the gathering of metadata, says this had led to a system of “widespread surveillance.” The scope of metadata must be better defined through public debate, he said, and judicial authorizations for specific collections should be required.


Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@]

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