CSIS saw ‘no high pri­vacy risks’ with meta­data crunch­ing: docs


The na­tional spy ser­vice saw lit­tle risk to the per­sonal pri­vacy of Cana­di­ans in a self-penned eval­u­a­tion of its se­cret data-crunch­ing cen­tre — a shad­owy pro­gram now at the cen­tre of in­tense con­tro­versy, newly re­leased doc­u­ments show.

The Cana­dian Se­cu­rity In­tel­li­gence Ser­vice cen­tre touched off a firestorm late last year when a judge said CSIS had bro­ken the law by keep­ing and an­a­lyz­ing the dig­i­tal meta­data of in­no­cent peo­ple.

The rul­ing also prompted de­bate about what fu­ture role the spy ser­vice should have — if any — in us­ing such po­ten­tially re­veal­ing in­for­ma­tion in its work.

But a pri­vacy im­pact as­sess­ment of the Op­er­a­tional Data Anal­y­sis Cen­tre pre­pared in Au­gust 2010 — and se­cret un­til now — of­fered lit­tle hint of such con­cerns.

“The as­sess­ment process has iden­ti­fied no high pri­vacy risks,” says the 62-page CSIS report.

It high­lighted six “low risk” is­sues of “lesser mag­ni­tude” con­cern­ing the use, ac­cu­racy, re­ten­tion, dis­posal and safe­guard­ing of per­sonal in­for­ma­tion.

Fed­eral agen­cies are sup­posed to carry out such as­sess­ments when in­tro­duc­ing a pro­gram with pos­si­ble pri­vacy im­pli­ca­tions.

The Cana­dian Press ob­tained a heav­ily cen­sored ver­sion of the clas­si­fied CSIS doc­u­ment through an Ac­cess to In­for­ma­tion re­quest.

In Novem­ber, Fed­eral Court Jus­tice Si­mon Noel said CSIS vi­o­lated the law by keep­ing elec­tronic data about peo­ple who were not ac­tu­ally un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion. His pointed rul­ing said the spy ser­vice should not have kept the in­for­ma­tion be­cause it was not di­rectly re­lated to threats to the se­cu­rity of Canada.

The pri­vacy im­pact as­sess­ment drafted years ear­lier said CSIS would man­age the “low” risks re­lated to use and re­ten­tion of the data by fol­low­ing es­tab­lished stan­dards and pro­ce­dures.

CSIS pro­cessed the in­for­ma­tion — known as meta­data — be­gin­ning in 2006 through its anal­y­sis cen­tre to iden­tify pat­terns of move­ment, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, be­hav­iours, sig­nif­i­cant trends and links that are other­wise not dis­cern­able.

Meta­data is in­for­ma­tion as­so­ci­ated with a com­mu­ni­ca­tion, such as a tele­phone num­ber or email ad­dress, but not the mes­sage it­self.

The of­fice of fed­eral pri­vacy com­mis­sioner Daniel Ther­rien says meta­data must be han­dled with care be­cause it can re­veal med­i­cal con­di­tions, re­li­gious be­liefs and sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, among other per­sonal traits.

Pri­vacy watch­dogs from across the coun­try re­cently said Canada’s spy agen­cies should de­stroy the data trails of in­no­cent peo­ple they col­lect in­ci­den­tally dur­ing ter­ror­ism in­ves­ti­ga­tions, once the ac­tual tar­gets have been cleared of suspicion.

Noel’s court rul­ing meant meta­data could be kept and used by CSIS only if the in­for­ma­tion was re­lated to a spe­cific threat to Cana­dian se­cu­rity or if it was of use to an in­ves­ti­ga­tion, pros­e­cu­tion, na­tional de­fence or for­eign af­fairs.

How­ever, the mat­ter is un­der re­view as part of a broad fed­eral ex­am­i­na­tion of na­tional se­cu­rity pol­icy.

Pub­lic Safety Min­is­ter Ralph Goodale, the cabi­net mem­ber re­spon­si­ble for CSIS, told MPs at a House of Com­mons com­mit­tee in De­cem­ber he was weigh­ing views on whether CSIS should be al­lowed to re­tain and use such in­for­ma­tion.

CSIS di­rec­tor Michel Coulombe tes­ti­fied that he hoped the spy ser­vice would be in a po­si­tion within about six months to de­cide what to do with the as­so­ci­ated meta­data col­lected over the 10-year pe­riod.

The 2010 pri­vacy im­pact as­sess­ment said that while CSIS be­lieves in open­ness and trans­parency, due to the “ex­treme sen­si­tiv­ity” of the data anal­y­sis cen­tre’s work, “it is not pos­si­ble to com­mu­ni­cate about that work to the pub­lic.”

The as­sess­ment said it was a “snap­shot in time and scope” of the anal­y­sis cen­tre’s “ca­pac­ity build­ing phase.”

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