TORONTO (AP) — Canada's electronic spy agency broke privacy laws by sharing information about Canadians with foreign partners, a federal watchdog said Thursday, and the country's defense minister said the practice will stop until proper protections are in place.
Commissioner Jean-Pierre Plouffe said in his annual report that the Communications Security Establishment passed along information known as metadata to counterparts in the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
Metadata is information associated with a communication, such as a telephone number or email address, but not the message itself.
The communications agency intercepts and analyzes foreign communications for intelligence information of interest to the federal government. The agency is legally authorized to collect and analyze metadata churning through cyberspace.
Plouffe, who keeps an eye on the highly secretive agency, said he found that it lacks clarity regarding the sharing of certain types of metadata.
Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan said the sharing won't resume until he is satisfied that the proper protections are in place. But he said the "metadata in question . did not contain names or enough information on its own to identify individuals."
However, Plouffe's report noted that certain metadata was not being properly minimized, or rendered unidentifiable, prior to being shared.
He concluded that the CSE's failure to strip out certain Canadian identity information violated the National Defense Act and therefore the federal Privacy Act as well.
Privacy advocates have stressed that metadata is far from innocuous since it can reveal a great deal about a person's online behavior and interactions.
Documents leaked in 2013 by former contractor Edward Snowden revealed that the U.S. National Security Agency, a close CSE ally, had obtained access to a huge volume of emails, chat logs and other information from major Internet companies, as well as massive amounts of data about telephone calls.
As a result, civil libertarians, privacy advocates and opposition politicians demanded assurances the CSE was not using its powers to snoop on Canadians.