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Private bill would increase oversight of Canada's electronic spy service

OTTAWA - 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.

Ottawa-based CSEC monitors foreign communications of intelligence interest to Canada, and exchanges information with similar agencies in the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

Leaks from Edward Snowden, a former employee of CSEC's American counterpart, have raised questions about operations of the so-called Five Eyes intelligence network.

The documents revealed that the U.S. National Security Agency had quietly obtained access to a broad swath of emails, chat logs and other information from major Internet companies, as well as data about a huge volume of telephone calls.

Documents Snowden handed to journalists also indicated that Canada helped the U.S. and Britain spy on participants at the London G20 summit in 2009. Other material suggested CSEC once monitored Brazil's department of mines and energy, or at least mapped out in detail how it could do so.

CSEC acknowledges it collected electronic metadata — or data trails about email messages — via a Canadian airport in a bid to better understand wireless systems.

The revelations have sparked widespread concern among privacy and civil liberties advocates, prompting a lawsuit against CSEC by the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association.

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.

Defence Minister Rob Nicholson has steadfastly defended CSEC, saying an independent commissioner has consistently found the agency in compliance with the law.

During debate in the House of Commons last May, Murray belittled the commissioner's office, currently led by Quebec judge Jean-Pierre Plouffe.

"This is not a robust watchdog," she said. "This is a starving, ineffective watchdog."

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."

Follow @JimBronskill on Twitter

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