Communications Security Establishment Canada and Spying

We are posting an item by about the Communications Security Establishment Canada, one of the government agencies that is involved in spying on Canadians, in particular monitoring private electronic communications of Canadian citizens, including emails and text messages, phone conversations and video chats.

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What is CSEC?

Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) is Canada’s national electronic intelligence agency, the Canadian counterpart to the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA).

CSEC is supposed to secretly collect electronic communications from overseas in order to advance Canadian interests – however their actual operations are shrouded in secrecy. Even former CSEC chief John Adams recently admitted: “[t]here’s no question that CSEC is very, very biased towards the less the public knows the better.”

After the events of Sept. 11, 2001, the electronic-eavesdropping agency was also given unprecedented new powers to intercept the private communications of Canadians and was told to collect private information about citizens. CSEC is required to have policies in place to protect the privacy of Canadians, but it has not provided those policies to Canadians.

How much does CSEC cost?

CSEC’s budget has doubled in just the last 10 years. We now spend $350 million in taxpayer dollars every single year on CSEC. Taxpayers are also on the hook for over $4 billion to build and operate a new headquarters for CSEC, which the CBC has called a “spy palace” and “the most expensive government building ever.”

Does CSEC really spy on Canadians?

Yes. Legal experts warn that CSEC uses secret ministerial authorizations to read Canadians’ emails and text messages, and listen to their phone calls, when Canadians are communicating with someone outside the country. So every time you contact a friend or relative in the U.S., that communication is subject to CSEC spying.

Without these ministerial authorizations, this kind of spying on our private communications would be illegal. Sadly, the authorizations are very broad and don’t even need to specify who’ll be targeted or what information should be intercepted.

Using a ministerial authorization, CSEC can read the content of emails and text messages, listen to the content of phone conversations, and watch video chats. Worst of all, the authorizations are kept secret – this spying could affect anyone, at any time, and we wouldn’t even know when we’ve been victimized by it.

Why are you concerned about all this?

CSEC now has enormous power to intercept our private communications without any checks and balances or judicial oversight.

This is completely unlike the much stronger safeguards that protect us from other government spying agencies, such as CSIS and the RCMP. Those agencies need to get a judge to sign a warrant before they can monitor our communications.

Unchecked government surveillance is a big threat to our democratic freedoms. Most Canadians don’t want government spies monitoring their everyday communications – especially without any reasonable safeguards.

People are talking a lot about metadata – What is this and why is it important?

Under top secret authorizations from the Defence Minister, CSEC is allowed to collect metadata from Canadians. Metadata is highly revealing information that’s automatically created every time you send an email or text message, make a phone call, or search the Internet.

For example, if you phone a friend, the metadata would include your phone number, your friend’s phone number, the time and date of the call, and the length of the conversation.

By collecting similar information on all your phone calls, texts, Internet searches, and emails, CSEC can build a detailed picture of your everyday life and your relationships with other Canadians.

Again, this widespread and hugely invasive spying is taking place without any real oversight or accountability. It’s totally incompatible with Canadian democracy.

Does CSEC share information with spy agencies in other countries?

CSEC is a member of the “five eyes,” which include spy agencies from the U.S., U.K., Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. CSEC shares information with those spy agencies – but does not tell Canadians what information it shares, or whether this includes information it has collected about Canadians.

What kind of oversight is there for CSEC?

Unlike in countries like Britain and the U.S., there is no parliamentary oversight of CSEC. Nor is there any court or committee that monitors how CSEC is collecting our private information.

The only government office responsible for reviewing CSEC is the Office of the CSEC Commissioner. This CSEC Commissioner reports to the Minister of National Defence – so the same Minister oversees both CSEC, and the office supposedly responsible for ensuring CSEC doesn’t break the law.

While CSEC itself is a huge agency, employing over 2000 people and with an annual budget of $350 million, the CSEC Commissioner’s office is tiny in comparison. It has a budget of only $2 million and a staff of just eight people.

What makes things even worse is that the CSEC Commissioner does not review CSEC’s spying activities before they take place. He can only look back at activities CSEC has undertaken in the past.

However the Office of the CSEC Commissioner has raised concerns about CSEC’s spying on Canadians. It has repeatedly recommended that the law be amended to better protect Canadians’ private communications from being spied on. Despite this, no such amendments have been enacted.

Why Is the BC Civil Liberties Association taking the government to court about CSEC?

The BCCLA’s lawsuit calls on the government to come clean and state clearly who they are watching, what is being collected and how they are handling Canadians’ private communications and information. The BCCLA filed this lawsuit to force the government to enact specific safeguards to protect the rights of all Canadians.

What are Canadians doing to put a stop to illegal spying? has launched a national campaign calling on all Canadians to show their support for the court challenge launched by the BCCLA. is Canada’s largest civic engagement organization that works to ensure the Internet is open, affordable, and surveillance-free.

Canadians are invited to stand with the BCCLA and show their support by speaking out at and the BCCLA are also part of a recently launched broad-based Protect Our Privacy Coalition of citizens, experts, organizations, and businesses who have come together to protect the privacy of every resident of Canada against intrusion by government entities. This Coalition now includes over 40 major organizations from right across the political spectrum — any individual Canadians are welcome to join too. Just add your name at:

(Photos: and BC Civil Liberties Association)

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