Fake spy operation at the airport

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Innocent travellers never told about it



It could have been the rehearsal for a fantastic Hollywood spy movie.

Canadians are learning more this week about a previously secret electronic spying operation conducted over a two-week period by dozens of Canadian spies in an un-named Canadian airport two years ago.

The head of Canada’s electronic spy agency was forced to testify before a Senate national defence committee meeting yesterday about what they did. Who says the Senate is never worth its salt?

John Forster, chief of the Communications Security Establishment of Canada, defended the spy operation by trying to reduce it to nothing more than just a practice session to prepare his electronic spy agency for the real thing if it’s ever needed sometime in the future.

He did not say why innocent travellers the agency spied upon in the airport were not told about it afterwards nor whether the agency is keeping the information it picked up on them or what use could eventually be made of it.

Canadians first found out about the spy operation a week earlier in a document released by Edward Snowden, a U.S. National Security whistleblower.

The Senate committee learned that the operation involved honing in on cellphones, electronic tablets and other personal communications equipment connected to the airport’s Wi-Fi system by travellers going through the airport.

The spy operatives used their equipment to track down travellers’ calls,  going back two weeks earlier or more to learn who they had called, and to hook their equipment to track calling, who they had called up to two weeks earlier, and to hook in on  their equipment to track travellers for the next week or more after they had left the airport.

The travellers they spied upon never knew and were never told. They were never real suspects, just people passing through the airport.

Forster said the agency did not obtain a warrant from a judge to conduct the operation since it wasn’t really “spying,” based of course on his definition of the word “spying.”

The agency even developed a new word for what it did. Forster called it “collecting metadata” which he described as “collecting data about data” without listening to actual cellphone conversations or reading text messages.

People who know espionage say collecting metadata is an excellent way to track suspects wherever they go and find out who they communicate with by cellphone or texting.

Metadata provides a most useful information for spy agencies because it includes information on the date, time, duration and location of electronic communications, the wireless device ID or internet address of the device that was used and the IDs or addresses of devices on the other end of the message or call — and even keywords or "tags" that relate to the information being exchanged.

Not exactly playing innocent spy games at the airport with your buddies.

Listening in on the actual content of the call, or recording it, would legally be considered spying on a private communication and would require a warrant from a judge under Canadian law.

The word “metadata” does not exist in federal law or judicial authorizations. It is a word the spy agencies invented to circumvent the law and justify their electronic spying on who they wish at airports and what they call “public access modes.”

The spy agencies refer to it officially as “developing a model to show how to track an internet user's network activity around a public access mode."

There now, that sounds innocent enough, doesn’t it? So stay calm and sleep well my friends.

Forster threw reporters for a loop when he said afterwards that the “metadata” collection operation at the chosen airport, which he didn’t name, had been approved by a federal cabinet minister. He did not reveal the minister’s name.

The first approval for such an operation was issued in 2005 under a Liberal government, and the latest one issued in 2011 by the current Conservative government, he said.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's national security adviser, Stephen Rigby, defended the metadata operation, explaining that to his way of thinking, it is "well within the legal parameters" of the spy agency’s operations. Rigby did not say whether he had told his boss, Stephen Harper, all about it.

Forster said he was not sure what will happen to the data information the agency picked up during their "metadata" operation. 

"After a maximum amount of time that data, if it hasn't already been discarded, it is discarded," Forster said.

Ontario Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian said later in a television interview that the spy agency was conducting electronic spying by another name and without obtaining the judicial warrant required by law.

She said Canadian law that spells out clearly how far government spy agencies can go with their operations.


But because of what CSEC did, it is obvious to her now, she said, that the law needs to be updated to include “metadata,” a term that she explained, appears nowhere right now in the current Canadian Privacy Act.



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