Should the Snowden Revelations Matter to Canadians?

February 9, 2017

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On November 2nd, 2016, Edward Snowden spoke to a mob of lively McGill University students in a jam-packed auditorium. Snowden, the notorious whistleblower who leaked thousands of secret documents to media outlets around the world, remains wanted by the American government on espionage charges. Yet, Snowden was clearly a popular figure among the McGill students, who applauded and yelled with zeal when his face appeared on the auditorium’s large screen. In fact, the line to attend the presentation stretched across campus that evening, and was so long that only a fraction of the attendees were able to be seated. Thousands of students have since viewed a recording of the presentation on YouTube (a link is provided below). Clearly, despite being “old news” by modern standards, Snowden’s message is still resonating with the public.

However, the attention paid to Edward Snowden by Canadians seems surprising at first glance, given that the leaks primarily concerned the American security establishment. So then, why should the Snowden leaks matter to Canadians? This article will explore what the Snowden leaks revealed about surveillance in the Canadian context.

Are Canadians Subject to American Surveillance?

The Snowden leaks reveale­­­d the shocking breadth of American surveillance programs. One such program, code-named PRISM, gives the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) access to data from large American firms, including Google and Facebook. Moreover, the documents showed that the U.S government had been collecting the phone records of millions of Americans every day without specific court orders, nor adequate oversight. [1]

Both of those programs did not seek to collect the content of actual emails or phone calls, but rather “metadata,” which can be understood as data about data. For example, metadata can include phone numbers, the length and time of calls, IP addresses, email addresses and internet routing information. While this information may not reveal the substance of the communication itself, it does allow authorities to draw a wide array of conclusions about a given user. Despite not having direct access to the substance of a phone call or email, agencies are able to trace a person’s movements and map out a network of their social relationships, which could actually be far more intrusive than the specific words of the individual’s communications themselves.

While the NSA has not been shown to target Canadians directly, there is little doubt that Canadians using U.S based services like Facebook, Twitter, or Google’s Gmail are being caught in the NSA’s dragnet. In fact, some estimates posit that 90 per cent of Canadian cyber traffic is routed through servers south of the border, all of which could have potentially been targeted by the NSA. [2] Canadians should be aware that the information they provide to foreign companies, whether it be photographs, personal emails, or comments made online, may be accessed by foreign governments.

Canada’s NSA: The Communications Security Establishment

Many Canadians may be surprised to know that the Canadian government has its own secretive surveillance agency, the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSE). The Snowden leaks have shown that the CSE has engaged in the same mass warrantless surveillance as their American counterpart.

While CSE is not permitted to target the private communications of Canadians without a judicial warrant under the National Defence Act, it has been collecting metadata, which it does not consider it to be a private communication. One top secret document retrieved by Snowden indicated that CSE used information from the free Wi-Fi internet at a major Canadian airport to track the wireless devices of thousands of ordinary airline passengers for days after they travelled through the terminal. [3] Given the protections offered by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and CSE’s stated mandates, such an initiative was perceived by many Canadians as questionable. It was later discovered that the operation was in fact a trial run of a new software program CSE was developing with the help of the NSA.[4]

The documents leaked by Snowden also uncovered another CSE program named “Levitation,” which sifted through millions of videos and documents downloaded on file-sharing websites worldwide.[5] The program was designed to identify terrorist plots, but resulted in every single upload and download to the targeted sharing sites being archived, collected and analyzed, regardless of whether the user was suspicious or not.[6]

The CSE has also been collecting millions of emails from Canadians and storing them for days, weeks or even years before deleting the records. More than 400,000 emails were being obtained every day, according to a 2010 document. While the program was intended to protect Government databases from hackers, retaining sensitive information for that period of time seems unwarranted.[7]

How is the privacy of Canadians being protected?

So then, the Snowden revelations have exposed a startlingly robust surveillance infrastructure which exists not only in the United States, but Canada. Given the power of these surveillance mechanisms, it follows that strong oversight is necessary in order to ensure that they are not abused. In its current form, CSE’s activities are reviewed by the Office of the CSE Commissioner. The Commissioner is a retired Superior Court judge who is independent of the Government. The CSE may also be subject to review by the Privacy Commissioner of Canada and other bodies in some circumstances.

Still, in a recent presentation at Ryerson University, Snowden emphasized that Canada has one of the “weakest oversight” frameworks for intelligence gathering in the Western world.[8] This sentiment is shared by the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, who has filed a lawsuit claiming that the agency’s “broad and unchecked surveillance of Canadians is unconstitutional” and “presents a grave threat to democratic freedoms.” Importantly, there are is no parliamentary oversight of CSE, and it is widely criticized for the lack of transparency in its operations. CCLA has been advocating for increased accountability for our national security agencies for decades and has included concerns regarding inadequate oversight in a constitutional challenge to the Anti-Terrorism Act, 2015.

In response to strong criticism of this lack of checks and balances, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale has proposed, in Bill C-222, a joint oversight committee with powers to evaluate the country’s covert security and intelligence activities, and propose modifications as necessary. While such a committee is a welcome improvement, critics, including the CCLA, have noted that it may not have adequate powers for truly robust oversight.

Yet, robust domestic safeguards still would not serve to protect the information of Canadians. Historically, Canada has been a member of the “Five Eyes,” a group of countries with whom it has shared intelligence for decades. Each of these countries assures its citizens that it is only surveilling foreign populations, but it seems probable that by sharing information with its partners the government has been gaining information on Canadians. While CSE has never confirmed or denied this allegation, the CSE’s interaction and sharing of information with foreign government may serve to circumvent whatever safeguards exist on a domestic level.


It has become clear that the Snowden revelations have important implications for Canadians. The Canadian government has constructed a staggeringly large surveillance apparatus in secret, and there remains relatively little transparency in its operation. Moreover, evidence exists that CSE has abused its powers, and has strayed outside of its mandate by surveilling Canadian citizens. Surveillance has become embedded in our daily lives, and it is easy to forget it exists until the next shocking leak. We must be mindful of the digital trail we leave behind, who might be following it, and why.


Edward Snowden’s presentation to McGill University can be found at this link:



 [1] “How Canadian Internet users may be getting caught in U.S surveillance.” CTV News, June 10 2013. <>

[2] Ibid.

[3] “CSEC used airport Wi-Fi to track Canadian travellers: Edward Snowden documents.” CBC News, January 30 2014. <>

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Edward Snowden says Canadian spying has weakest oversight in Western world.” CBC News. March 4 2015. <>

[6] “CSE tracks millions of downloads daily: Snowden documents.” CBC News, April 2 2015. <>

[7] “CSE monitors millions of Canadian emails to government.” CBC News, February 9 2016. <>

[8] “Edward Snowden says Canadian spying has weakest oversight in Western world.” CBC News, March 4 2015. <>