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Among the documents leaked by former U.S. intelligence analyst Edward Snowden is a 27-page PowerPoint presentation from Canada’s electronic spy agency, showing that the agency used information from the free Wi-Fi at a major Canadian airport to track the phones and computers of ordinary airline passengers for days after they left the airport.
The Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) denies tracking or collecting the content of communications, but says it is legally authorized to collect and analyze technical information known as metadata. Intelligence experts contacted by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) say the practice is “almost certainly illegal.”
The 2012 pilot program revealed in the CBC report was a trial run of new software the Canadian spy agency was developing with the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA). Greg Weston, national affairs specialist for CBC, has been covering the story and joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson with details.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
Well, now to Canada, where reaction is pouring in today to new revelations from documents leaked by Edward Snowden. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is reporting that Canada's spy agency tracked the phones and laptops of airline passengers who used airport Wi-Fi in Canada, and not just while they were at the airport, but for days afterwards. Joining us from Ottawa with the details is one of the reporters who broke the story, CBC reporter Greg Weston. Greg, welcome.
GREG WESTON: Hi, Jeremy.
HOBSON: Well, what exactly were they doing here?
WESTON: Well, what they had done, what the spy agency called CSEC - which is Canada's version of the NSA - somehow managed to get a hold of two weeks' worth of all the data from one of our major international airports. We don't know which one. Our suspicion is it was either Vancouver or Toronto, although they deny that they ever cooperated on this thing.
But it was a major airport. So you can imagine there are thousands of people going through there, and every time somebody logged onto the Wi-Fi - and experts tell us that even if you didn't log on at a Wi-Fi, that just even walking through there with a smartphone, the chances are data was pulled off your smartphone, identifying that smartphone.
So what they did was they took all of those identities, and then they tracked them for days afterwards. How'd they do that? Well, they somehow managed to, with this new technology, this new computer system they have, every time your - one of those smartphones or computers pass through another Wi-Fi zone, whether it was at a hotel, another airport, a coffee shop, anywhere, anywhere there are tens of thousands of Wi-Fi hotspots, CSEC would know about it, the spy agency would know about it.
And so, in effect, they were able to track thousands of people at once in almost real time. It was an incredible exercise.
HOBSON: And were these people if all nationalities? Because there has been some question in the United States about whether the NSA, you know, whether they were looking at people - just foreigners, or also American citizens.
WESTON: Well, in this case, it - like the United States, CSEC is not supposed to be - is not allowed, in fact, by law to target or to spy on Canadians anywhere in the world, or anybody in Canada, even if you're a visitor, even if you're a foreigner. So that's one thing.
But here, clearly, it is identified as an international airline terminal, and we know that Americans, for instance, make millions of trips back and forth our borders all the time. So next to Canadians being in that terminal, either leaving or coming home, the chances are pretty good the majority of the other people would've been Americans coming and going, as well.
HOBSON: In fact, in some of the Canadian airports, you can enter into the United States before you even leave Canada, because they've got the immigration set up right there in the Canadian airport. What is CSEC, the spy agency, saying about this?
WESTON: Well, it's - it will have a familiar ring to your American audience. They're saying the same thing that the NSA was saying in the early days of its controversy: Oh, this is just metadata. That's the data like your phone numbers, or in this case, just the identifiers in your phone. We're not actually listening to your phone calls, so we're not really following you. We're not really doing anything wrong.
It's certainly not washing with the experts who are rushing to the fore to say, whoa, this is way outside their mandate. And we have both federal and provincial privacy commissioners that frankly have - are just going crazy over this. This is very disturbing.
HOBSON: Well, and let's listen to one of them. This is Canada's Privacy Commissioner, Ann Cavoukian.
ANN CAVOUKIAN: Look at the United States. 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.
HOBSON: How are the people of Canada reacting to this?
WESTON: Well, of course, it's early times, but we're actually getting a lot of social media traffic. We're getting groups that actually specialize in Internet issues who are just totally outraged by this. I have to say, I mean, most Canadians, I expect - and I have no scientific proof of this - but I expect most Canadians are just shocked. Up until all of the Snowden documents started to peel back the layers of the NSA, and people - most people, most Canadians had never heard of CSEC.
CSEC is our most secretive agency. They serious - it's been around. It was an old signals intelligence thing that dates back 70 years. And I had an interview a couple months ago with the former head of CSEC, and one of the first things he said, he said, Greg, you have to understand. There is a culture built into CSEC of absolute privacy.
We don't talk to anybody. And he said, you know, it's worked. Go looking for one headline about CSEC in the last 70 years. You're hard-pressed to find one. So, until recently, most Canadians didn't even know they exist, and I think most Canadians are shocked that Canada's actually involved in this game.
HOBSON: Greg Weston, national affairs specialist for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, joining us from Ottawa to talk about some new revelations from the Edward Snowden documents that show that the Canadian spy agency was collaborating with the NSA and spying on passengers who used airport Wi-Fi in Canada, although Greg, as you said, we don't know exactly which airports we're talking about. But thank you so much for joining us.
WESTON: My pleasure, Jeremy.
HOBSON: This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.