Canada has no access to data gathered by a top-secret US government surveillance programme, but the nation’s secret signals intelligence agency is monitoring foreign phone and internet traffic, officials said on Monday.
An ex-CIA employee working as a contractor for the US National Security Agency says the NSA is running a massive effort called Prism that scoops up information from phone companies as well as internet data from companies such as Google and Facebook.
His revelations have opened a broad debate on privacy rights and the limits of security programmes in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. It also posed questions as to whether the NSA was sharing data with allies.
Opposition lawmakers had said they feared Canada’s top-secret Communication Security Establishment (CSE), a branch of the defence ministry that specialises in gathering signals intelligence abroad, might be using Prism data to circumvent rules that ban it from spying on Canadians.
“The Communications Security Establishment does not have access to data in Prism,” CSE spokesman Ryan Foreman said in a statement late on Monday.
Canada works closely with the United States, which along with Britain, New Zealand and Australia belong to the so-called Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network.
Britain on Monday dismissed accusations that its security agencies had been circumventing British law by using Prism. But officials would not confirm or deny that Britain had had access to the information.
Canadian Defence Minister Peter MacKay had earlier confirmed a report in the Globe and Mail newspaper that said CSE – which is not allowed to monitor domestic telecommunications or target Canadians – runs a global electronic eavesdropping programme designed to detect patterns of suspicious activity.
Like Prism, the programme collects metadata – information about calls rather than the content of the calls – the Globe said, citing documents obtained under access to information laws.
“This programme is very much directed at activities outside the country, foreign threats, in fact. There is rigorous oversight, there is legislation in place that specifically dictates what can and cannot be examined,” MacKay told lawmakers in the House of Commons elected chamber.
The documents obtained by the Globe showed that MacKay signed a ministerial directive approving an updated version of the programme on November 21, 2011.
Foreman confirmed that “CSE uses metadata to isolate and identify foreign communications”.
The Globe said CSE had suspended a previous version of the programme for more than a year in 2008 after a federal watchdog raised concerns it could lead to warrantless surveillance of Canadians.
Canada’s privacy commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, said she was alarmed by the reports on Prism and would press to see if Canadians have been affected, a spokesman said on Monday.
She will also contact data protection authorities around the world to discuss whether to mount a joint fact-finding effort into the recent revelations, he added.