Story updated with comments from Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian at 4:10 PM ET.

The federal government and arm’s length Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) must do more to answer questions about the information they are collecting on Canadians in the digital realm and how that information is used and retained, says Ann Cavoukian, Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner in her annual report.

The commissioner’s report calls on Canadians to hold government leaders to account in response to the government surveillance revelations brought to light by ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The report describes CSEC as operating with “even fewer checks and balances” than the National Security Agency (NSA). The CSEC spying threatens Canadians’ privacy and citizens deserve answers on just how far the agency has gone to ensure security and the full extent to what it is capable of.

“The public sector has a greater obligation to protect privacy,” Cavoukian said in a phone interview. “Certainly we have to ensure our governments are protecting citizens’ privacy.”

Cavoukian also levelled criticism against provincial and municipal level government in Ontario in her report. She specifically called out the transgressions of CSEC, a federal-level agency, because of the request from the federal Office of the Privacy Commissioner that provincial privacy commissioners chip in to help combat government surveillance shortly after Snowden’s leak of the NSA’s PRISM program.

“When it comes to the state’s power to conduct surveillance, critical privacy protections must include independent court supervision of intrusive powers. Right now, the only form of public accountability and transparency for CSEC rests on an obtuse, after-the-fact, single annual review, undertaken by a single individual with a small staff. This is woefully inadequate for programs which may affect the personal freedoms of all Canadians,” states the report.

In January, a document leaked by Snowden revealed that CSEC, Canada’s electronic spying agency, tracked wireless devices of Canadians during visits to major airports and for days afterwards. Using the WiFi networks available at airports, CSEC scoured the metadata of Canadians’ personal devices – which could reveal location, telephone numbers called or answered, and the type of device used. Since then, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association has filed a class-action lawsuit against CSEC for spying on Canadians and made a separate request that declares CSEC infringed on Canadians’ Charter rights.

In May, the federal Privacy Commissioner’s Office wrote an open letter to Treasury Board President Tony Clement expressing concern about the number of government institutions collecting publicly available data from social media websites. The interim commissioner at the time raised concerns the collection of the information was not related to any specific program, or checked for accuracy, and called on the Treasury Board to develop specific guidelines for the collection, use and dissemination of information.

“We simply don’t know what they’re doing in accessing people’s personal information,” Cavoukian says. “This is not something we can tolerate in a free society.”

Cavoukian is calling on Canadians to question their MPs about how CSEC’s power is being kept in check. She is also asking Canadians to sign an online petition hosted by OpenMedia.ca to hold the government to account.

 

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