Friday, June 20, 2014

Private member's bill seeks greater oversight of CSEC

Liberal Defence critic Joyce Murray has introduced a private member's bill designed to improve oversight over CSEC (Jim Bronskill, "Bill aims to make e-spies more accountable," Canadian Press, 19 June 2014):
A private member’s bill sponsored by the Liberal defence critic would bolster oversight of Canada’s electronic eavesdropping agency by transferring some ministerial powers to the courts.

Joyce Murray’s bill tabled Thursday also proposes requiring Communications Security Establishment Canada, known as CSEC, to issue an annual public report.

In addition, the legislation would create a security-cleared committee of parliamentarians to keep a watchful eye on Canadian intelligence activities.


Murray says her bill would restore public trust in an agency she considers vital to protecting the security of Canadians by:

— Forcing the defence minister to apply to the Federal Court for an order authorizing CSEC to intercept communications when there is a chance Canadians’ private exchanges may be swept up.

— Strengthening obligations to destroy unnecessary information about Canadians in a timely way.

— Requiring the CSEC chief to keep a record of each request the agency receives for technical or operational assistance from a federal police or security agency.

Private member’s bills rarely become law, and the Conservatives have already indicated they do not support the idea of creating a full-fledged national security committee of parliamentarians.


Murray’s bill would broaden the commissioner’s mandate — for instance by requiring the watchdog to report not just on compliance with the law but on all court orders and ministerial directives.

It would also ensure the commissioner’s annual report was sufficiently detailed “to meaningfully inform Parliament and the public on matters of public interest.”

The legislation is timely and ambitious, said Wesley Wark, a University of Ottawa intelligence expert whom Murray consulted in preparing the legislation.

“It takes stock of all that we have learned about global electronic surveillance practices from the Snowden revelations and tries to find a Canadian fix,” he said.

“Even if the bill is ultimately not passed it will generate a much needed public debate in Canada about the democratic limits that need to be placed on an intelligence agency.”
The full text of Murray's bill, Bill C-622, can be found here. The section concerning the creation of a dedicated oversight committee composed of MPs and senators is an improved version of Wayne Easter's Bill C-551, which was introduced in November 2013.

It's refreshing to see members of parliament grappling seriously with the issues surrounding CSEC and drawing on outside expertise to get a better understanding of what the agency does and how its activities might better be overseen.

Further coverage and commentary:
- Giuseppe Valiante, "Liberal MP tables bill to tighten CSES's spying," Toronto Sun, 19 June 2014
- Tamir Israel, "Private Member Bill Attempts to Bring CSEC Under Control," CIPPIC blog, 18 June 2014

[Update 10 October 2014: There is some possibility that Murray's private member's bill will be ruled out of order, which would prevent it from being voted on. See Kady O'Malley, "Liberal MP's CSEC oversight bill may be nixed by House Speaker," CBC News, 8 October 2014. Not that there has ever been much chance of the bill passing a vote anyway, given the government's evident opposition to action on this issue.]

See also Colin Freeze, "Canadian agencies’ warrantless snooping on shaky legal ground, critics warn," Globe and Mail, 19 June 2014. Freeze's article notes the Murray bill but focuses on the questionable legality of current data accesses by CSEC and CSIS:
Canadian spies who snoop on citizens’ Internet and phone records without a warrant risk running afoul of the law if they do not change the way they operate, critics say.

Like police agencies at home and spy agencies abroad, the federal government’s two main intelligence services are being forced to adjust to a climate of growing privacy concerns.


Critics say CSEC’s legal foundations are shaky and fixes are needed. “The government has been operating on a theory that what they’re collecting is something magical that doesn’t attract a reasonable expectation of privacy,” said Craig Forcese, a law professor at the University of Ottawa.

Secret hearings and secret authorizations have long shielded intelligence-agency practices in Canada from public view, yet new Conservative legislation and last week’s Supreme Court rulings have helped bring broader issues to the fore.


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