by Greg Weston, Glenn Greenwald, Ryan Gallagher
January 30, 2014
was part of a trial run for U.S. NSA
and other foreign services
A top secret document retrieved by U.S. whistleblower
Edward Snowden and obtained by CBC News
shows that Canada's electronic spy agency used information from the free
internet service at a major Canadian airport to track the wireless devices
of thousands of ordinary airline passengers for days after they left the
After reviewing the document, one of Canada's foremost authorities on
cyber-security says the clandestine operation by the Communications
Security Establishment Canada (CSEC)
was almost certainly illegal. Read "CSEC's
airport Wi-Fi tracking".
Ronald Deibert told CBC News:
"I can't see any circumstance in which this
would not be unlawful, under current Canadian law, under our Charter,
under CSEC's mandates."
The spy agency is supposed to be collecting
primarily foreign intelligence by intercepting overseas phone and internet
traffic, and is prohibited by law from targeting Canadians or anyone in
Canada without a judicial warrant.
As CSEC chief John Forster recently stated:
"I can tell you that we do not target
Canadians at home or abroad in our foreign intelligence activities, nor
do we target anyone in Canada. In fact, it's prohibited by law.
Protecting the privacy of Canadians is our
most important 'principle'."
But security experts who have been apprised of
the document point out the airline
passengers in a Canadian airport were clearly in Canada.
CSEC said in a written statement to CBC News that it is,
"mandated to collect foreign signals
intelligence to protect Canada and Canadians. And in order to fulfill
that key foreign intelligence role for the country, CSEC is legally
authorized to collect and analyze metadata."
Metadata reveals a trove of information
including, for example, the location and telephone numbers of all calls a
person makes and receives - but not the content of the call, which would
legally be considered a private communication and cannot be intercepted
without a warrant.
"No Canadian communications were (or are)
targeted, collected or used," the agency says.
In the case of the airport tracking operation,
the metadata apparently identified travelers' wireless devices, but not the
content of calls made or emails sent from them.
Deibert is author of the book
Black Code: Inside the Battle for Cyberspace,
which is about internet surveillance, and he heads the world-renowned
Citizen Lab cyber research program at the
University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs.
He says that whatever CSEC calls it, the tracking of those passengers was
nothing less than an,
"indiscriminate collection and analysis of
Canadians' communications data,"
...and he could not imagine any circumstances
that would have convinced a judge to authorize it.
A passenger checks his cellphone while boarding a flight in Boston in
The U.S. Federal Aviation
Administration issued new guidelines
under which passengers will
be able to use electronic devices
from the time they board to
the time they leave the plane,
which will also help
electronic spies to keep tabs on them.
The latest Snowden document indicates the spy service was provided with
information captured from unsuspecting travelers' wireless devices by the
airport's free Wi-Fi system over a two-week period.
Experts say that probably included many Canadians whose Smartphone and
laptop signals were intercepted without their knowledge as they passed
through the terminal.
The document shows the federal intelligence agency was then able to track
the travelers for a week or more as they - and their wireless devices -
showed up in other Wi-Fi "hot spots" in cities across Canada and even at
That included people visiting other airports, hotels, coffee shops and
restaurants, libraries, ground transportation hubs, and any number of places
among the literally thousands with public wireless internet access.
The document shows CSEC had so much data it could even track the travelers
back in time through the days leading up to their arrival at the airport,
these experts say.
While the documents make no mention of specific individuals, Deibert and
other cyber experts say it would be simple for the spy agency to have put
names to all the Canadians swept up in the operation.
All Canadians with a Smartphone, tablet or laptop are,
"essentially carrying around digital dog
tags as we go about our daily lives," Deibert says.
Anyone able to access the data that those
devices leave behind on wireless hotspots, he says, can obtain,
"extraordinarily precise information about
our movements and social relationships."
Trial run for NSA
The document indicates the passenger tracking operation was a trial run of a
powerful new software program CSEC was developing with help from its U.S.
the National Security Agency.
In the document, CSEC called the new technologies,
"game-changing," and said they could be used
for tracking "any target that makes occasional forays into other
Sources tell CBC News the technologies tested on
Canadians in 2012 have since become fully operational.
"no Canadian or foreign travelers' movements
were 'tracked,'" although it does not explain why it put the word
"tracked" in quotation marks.
Deibert says metadata is,
"way more powerful than the content of
communications. You can tell a lot more about people, their habits,
their relationships, their friendships, even their political
preferences, based on that type of metadata."
The document does not say exactly how the
Canadian spy service managed to get its hands on two weeks' of travelers'
wireless data from the airport Wi-Fi system, although there are indications
it was provided voluntarily by a "special source."
The country's two largest airports - Toronto and Vancouver - both say they
have never supplied CSEC or other Canadian intelligence agency with
information on passengers' Wi-Fi use.
Alana Lawrence, a spokesperson for the Vancouver Airport Authority,
says it operates the free Wi-Fi there, but does,
"not in any way store any personal data
associated with it," and has never received a request from any Canadian
intelligence agency for it.
A U.S.-based company,
Boingo, is the largest independent supplier
of Wi-Fi services at other Canadian airports, including Pearson
International in Toronto.
Spokesperson Katie O'Neill tells CBC News:
"To the best of our knowledge, [Boingo] has
not provided any information about any of our users to the Canadian
government, law enforcement or intelligence agencies."
It is also unclear from the document how CSEC
managed to penetrate so many wireless systems to see who was using them -
specifically, to know every time someone targeted at the airport showed up
on one of those other Wi-Fi networks elsewhere.
Deibert and other experts say the federal intelligence agency must have
gained direct access to at least some of the country's main telephone and
internet pipelines, allowing the mass-surveillance of Canadian emails and
Ontario's privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian says she is "blown away"
by the revelations.
"It is really unbelievable that CSEC would
engage in that kind of surveillance of Canadians. Of us. I mean that could have been me at the airport walking around…
resembles the activities of a totalitarian state, not a free and open
Privacy commissioner Ann
(Colin Perkel/Canadian Press)
Experts say the document makes clear CSEC intended to share both the
technologies and future information generated by it with Canada's official
Indeed, the spy agency boasts in its leaked document that, in an apparently
separate pilot project, it obtained access to two communications systems
with more than 300,000 users, and was then able to "sweep" an entire
mid-sized Canadian city to pinpoint a specific imaginary target in a
The document dated May 2012 is a 27-page power-point presentation by CSEC
describing its airport tracking operation. While the document was in the
trove of secret NSA files retrieved by Snowden, it bears CSEC's logo and
clearly originated with the Canadian spy service.
Wesley Wark, a renowned authority on international security and
intelligence, agrees with Deibert.
"I cannot see any way in which it fits
CSEC's legal mandate."
Wark says the document suggests CSEC was,
"trying to push the technological
boundaries" in part to impress its other international counterparts in
the Five-Eyes intelligence network. "This document is kind of suffused
with the language of technological gee-whiz."
Wark says if CSEC's use of,
"very powerful and intrusive technological
tools" puts it outside its mandate and even the law, "then you are in a
situation for democracy where you simply don't want to be."
Like Wark and other experts interviewed for this
story, Deibert says there's no question Canada needs CSEC to be gathering
"but they must do it within a framework of
proper checks and balances so their formidable powers can never be
abused. And that's the missing ingredient right now in Canada."
The only official oversight of CSEC's spying
a retired judge appointed by the prime minister,
and reporting to the minister of defence who is also responsible for the
"Here we clearly have an agency of the state
collecting in an indiscriminate and bulk fashion all of Canadian
communications and the oversight mechanism is flimsy at best," Deibert
"Those to me are circumstances ripe for potential abuse."
CSEC spends over $400 million a year, and
employs about 2,000 people, almost half of whom are involved in intercepting
phone conversations, and hacking into computer systems supposedly in other
It has long been Canada's most secretive spy agency, responding to almost
all questions about its operations with reassurances it is doing nothing
Privacy watchdog Cavoukian says there has to be,
"greater openness and transparency because
without that there can be no accountability."
"This trust-me model that the government is
advancing and CSEC is advancing - 'Oh just trust us, we're doing the
right thing, don't worry' - yes, worry! We have very good reason to
In the U.S., Snowden exposed massive metadata
collection by the National Security Agency, which is said to have scooped up
private phone and internet records of more than 100 million Americans.
A U.S. judge recently called the NSA's metadata collection an Orwellian
surveillance program that is likely unconstitutional.
The public furor over
NSA snooping prompted a White House review
of the American spy agency's operations, and President Barack Obama
recently vowed to clamp down on the collection and use of metadata.
Cavoukian says Canadians deserve nothing less.
"Look at the U.S. - they've been talking
about these matters involving national security for months now very
publicly because the public deserves answers."
"And that's what I would tell our government, our minister of national
defence and our prime minister: We demand some answers to this."