By David Ljunggren
OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's electronic spy agency has been intercepting and analyzing data on up to 15 million file downloads a day as part of a global surveillance program, according to a report published on Wednesday.
The covert dragnet, nicknamed Levitation, has covered allied countries and trading partners such as the United States, Britain, Brazil, Germany, Spain and Portugal, the report by CBC News and journalist Glenn Greenwald said.
The spying initiative was revealed in 2012 documents obtained by U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden. It is the first revelation from the Snowden files to show Canada has launched its own mass, globe-spanning Internet surveillance.
CBC said the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) surveillance program nets what it said the CSE calls 350 "interesting download events" each month.
CSE is a secretive body, which like the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) monitors electronic communication and helps protect national computer networks. It is not allowed to target Canadians or Canadian corporations.
In the past, CSE has faced allegations that it has improperly intercepted Canadians' phone conversations and emails. Wednesday's revelations prompted critics to call for a system of parliamentary oversight, which does not currently exist.
"There are privacy concerns but we don't really have a framework to ensure that, and we can't just go with 'Just trust us'," said Jack Harris of the opposition New Democratic Party.
Among its hauls, the eavesdropping program has discovered a German hostage video and an uploaded document that revealed the hostage strategy of an al-Qaeda wing in North Africa, the CBC said.
The Snowden documents show the agency has sifted through 10 million to 15 million uploads a day of videos, music documents and other files hosted by 102 file-sharing websites.
Canada is part of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network along with the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
In 2013, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff demanded an explanation from Canada after a media report, also based on Snowden documents, said CSE spied on the South American country's mines and energy ministry.
Wesley Wark, one of Canada's top security experts, said Levitation may fall under CSE's foreign intelligence mandate, but questioned its effectiveness.
"Does this massive trawling of free download sites aimed at detecting terrorist communications or identities really deliver useful intelligence?" Wark, a University of Ottawa professor, said, noting CSE had talked of only two successes.
In a statement, the OpenMedia.ca lobby group said "CSE is clearly spying on the private online activities of millions of innocent people, including Canadians, despite repeated government assurances to the contrary".
An independent watchdog monitors CSE but the watchdog's powers of oversight are limited. Opposition parties moved in Parliament last October to give it a more robust role but were defeated by the governing Conservatives.
In November 2013, the CBC cited other Snowden documents that it said showed Canada had allowed the NSA to conduct widespread surveillance during the 2010 Group of 20 summit in Toronto.
Last August, the government watchdog said CSE should tighten up its procedures for handling the private calls and emails it intercepts.
The office of Defence Minister Rob Nicholson, who has overall responsibility for CSE, referred queries to the agency. CSE said it would respond later on Wednesday.
(Additional reporting by Mike De Souza in Ottawa Editing by Amran Abocar; and Peter Galloway)