Michael Doucet stands before a podium

Photo: Jesse Caplan

It’s tough to keep Canada’s spies accountable

In Business & Technology /

By Sylvia Lorico

New laws and changes within Canadian intelligence services make it challenging for the bodies that review them to hold the services accountable, said Michael Doucet, executive director of the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC).

Doucet spoke at Ryerson Wednesday evening.

SIRC is an independent review body that reports to Parliament on the performance of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).

CSIS is Canada’s primary intelligence agency. It operates in Canada and abroad, collecting, analyzing and sharing information in the name of national security.

With the exception of some discussions by Cabinet ministers, SIRC can access all information concerning CSIS’ activities. Its reviews are reported to Parliament annually. SIRC reviews are non-binding, meaning CSIS isn’t required to implement their recommendations.

Under the Anti-Terrorism Act (commonly known as Bill C-51), 17 government agencies are able to share information with each other. Just three—CSIS, the RCMP and the Communications Security Establishment—have independent review bodies.

“Today nobody has the ability to look at those 17 organizations from a real perspective, that is, across all organizations,” he said.  

The problem, Doucet said, is not just the lack of review bodies, but the inability of these bodies to share information with each other. SIRC cannot cooperate with other bodies to review other agencies despite them sharing intelligence with CSIS.

“In my opinion, it’s a failing of the system that we can’t look outside an institution,” he said.

The introduction of C-51 changed the actions of CSIS. Since it passed in 2015, CSIS has been able to employ what are called threat-reduction activities.

Before the bill passed, CSIS’ mandate only included collecting data, analyzing it and advising the federal government about threats.

“Now they have the ability to play with your car, stop you from getting a job or stop you from boarding an aircraft,” Doucet said.

The Anti-Terrorism Act allows SIRC to examine CSIS’ threat-reduction activities. CSIS can disrupt threats without SIRC’s consent.

Doucet also voiced concern over the collection and use of metadata by CSIS. Metadata provides information about other data. It includes information about people’s phone calls, emails and web browsing.

The metadata that can be collected in a phone call includes the length of the conversation, the location of each phone and who was on the call. What was discussed in that phone call, however, is not considered metadata and is not collected by CSIS.

During its 2014-2015 review cycle, SIRC examined the use of metadata by CSIS. It recommended CSIS make the Federal Court aware of the collection and use of metadata collected with a warrant.

CSIS did not agree with the recommendation, calling it “inappropriate and unwarranted” under the CSIS Act.

On Nov. 3, Federal Court justice Simon Noël ruled that CSIS illegally kept data on people who didn’t pose security threats. CSIS had stored unknown amounts of data on people who communicated with the targets of their investigations but were not considered threats themselves, since 2006.

Doucet said a shift occurred in the means by which CSIS collects information. Intelligence services used to identify a target and then collect information on them. But with the rise of mass data collection, intelligence services like CSIS will now collect data then use it to identify a target.

“The big data’s out there, they are looking at it and as we saw in the metadata, they run the risk of not doing the right thing or embarking in illegal activity,” he said. “We have to pay attention to them.”

Balancing privacy and security was a recurring topic in Doucet’s presentation.

“Can you have privacy protection and security? I think you can, but you have to conscious as to how you’re doing that,” he said.

Doucet said around 80 per cent of SIRC recommendations are implemented by CSIS. He believes recommendations should remain non-binding.

“If we were at 100 per cent, it would be like your kid coming home with straight A’s. My initial reaction would be: ‘School’s too easy.’ We want to put out challenging and thoughtful recommendations, but at the end of the day Michel Coulombe at CSIS will see them and prioritize them as he sees fit.”

Coulombe is the director of CSIS.

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