Editorial: New federal anti-terrorism plans worrying

Federal Conservatives set to introduce sweeping new changes today to anti-terrorism laws that govern the reach of Canada’s spy agencies

The federal Conservatives are set to introduce sweeping new changes today to anti-terrorism laws that govern the reach of Canada’s spy agencies: the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).

Little has been known about the reach and activitives of CSEC in particular, but documents released this week through CBC and U.S. website The Intercept show CSEC is making a mark in the international intelligence community with its own programs.

Wednesday’s news focused on a program created by CSEC that tracks uploads and downloads at more than 100 file-sharing sites online. If a particular file piques CSEC’s interest, they can trace the IP address – a unique identifier connected to all modems – of anyone interacting with the file and then use U.S. and U.K. spy agency software to dig out more personal information.

It’s a rare event for a Canadian agency to be be directly exposed in warrantless data collection on a mass scale, but suspicion about this sort of activity has been rampant since whistleblower Edward Snowden began leaking documents through various media in 2013.

Now, on the eve of what Prime Minister Stephen Harper calls “much-needed” changes to Canadian anti-terrorism laws, it’s critical that Canadians wake up from their slumber over online monitoring and ensure elected officials value privacy over simpler prosecution.

A U.S. senate report triggered by Snowden’s revelations and released in late 2014 illustrated the uselessness of mass government spying in preventing terrorist attacks.

But perhaps the most unsettling development of Canada’s spying evolution is a lack of parliamentary oversight. Only cabinet and an independent body appointed by the government of the day gets a peek into CSIS and CSEC’s latest digital toys. That needs to change. A parliamentary committee with members from all political parties needs oversight authority. The alternative is the ready-made potential for a nanny state.

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