Privacy Plan

Case Study 2: The CSE and mass surveillance


The CSE (Communications Security Establishment)47 is Canada’s electronic eavesdropping agency. Operating within a global spy alliance called the ‘Five Eyes’, CSE works very closely with its counterpart agencies in the U.K., the U.S., New Zealand, and Australia. CSE’s roots date back to the Second World War, when it began as a military signals corps collecting foreign signals intelligence (SIGINT).48

While CSE has been consistently active in spying operations since its beginnings in the 1940s, its surveillance capability, staff capacity, mandated powers and financial resources have expanded significantly since December 2001, when the Anti-Terrorism Act 200149 was ratified. Under this legislation, CSE was mandated to intercept the online communications of Canadians as long as it targeted foreign targets.50 Since this time, CSE’s staff has more than doubled in size51 and the agency now employs over 2,000 people.

Internet Voice: “These over-reaching laws have not helped Canadians. The security of where the information is stored is not reliable or safe. The actions taken have not been legal, transparent or ethical. Spy agencies are suppose to ignore regular and non-criminal people to focus on real threats. Not harass and criminalize innocent people. The Canadian government and spy-agencies can do a better job.” - Brian V.


Online spying on a massive scale


CSE describes its work as being “focused on collecting foreign signals intelligence in support of the Government of Canada’s priorities, and on helping protect the computer networks and information of greatest importance to Canada.”

Despite these benign-sounding claims, we know from Edward Snowden that the CSE, along with its ‘Five Eyes’ partners, is in fact engaging in massive surveillance undertakings that are collecting, storing, and analyzing vast amounts of personal information and private communications from around the world, including from here in Canada.52

Two recent revelations illustrate the vast scope and scale of CSE’s mass surveillance activities. According to government documents53 revealed by CBC News in partnership with The Intercept in January 2015, CSE is monitoring millions of Internet users’ file downloads every day, including Canadians’ file downloading activities.54

These documents, sourced from Edward Snowden, reveal that Canada’s spy agency has been collecting and analyzing up to 15 million file downloads daily. Journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ryan Gallagher conclude that this dragnet search program, codenamed LEVITATION, reveals that the Canadian government has “launched its own globe-spanning Internet mass surveillance system.”55

One OpenMedia community member’s response to the LEVITATION revelations


Just a few weeks later, CBC News and The Intercept again teamed up to reveal that CSE is systematically collecting millions of private emails being sent by Canadians to the government, including emails sent to their local Members of Parliament.56 The content of these emails is being stored in giant government databases for months, with some information retained for years.57

There is no doubt that the type of information being collected by CSE can be used to paint a highly revealing58 portrait of any individual. For example, according to surveillance expert Professor Ron Deibert, the bulk collection of metadata gives intelligence agencies the power to “pinpoint not only who you are, but with whom you meet, with what frequency and duration, and at which locations.”59


Innocent citizens under the microscope


Of course, any system of mass online surveillance by definition ensnares innocent people. The process by which CSE sifts through large volumes of information exposes the private activities of millions of Internet users, including Canadians, who are completely innocent of any wrongdoing. As privacy expert Michael Geist points out:

“The program removes any doubt about Canada’s role in global Internet surveillance and highlights how seemingly all Internet activity is now tracked by intelligence agencies. They are able to track who visits various websites and what they do from the outside, confirming the existence of a massive surveillance architecture of global Internet traffic that improved oversight in Canada alone would do little to address.”60

As recent revelations show, just clicking a link or writing to your Member of Parliament is now enough to place you under the government’s microscope.


Canadians spying on Canadians


Remarkably, until a couple of years ago, CSE remained largely hidden from public attention. Most Canadians were unaware of the agency’s activities, and many were not even aware of its existence.

In June 2013, however, The Guardian and The Washington Post published a number of confidential documents, sourced from whistleblower Edward Snowden, that revealed details about the pervasive and extensive government spying activities of the U.S. Government. The revelations included information on PRISM,61 the spy program that gives the U.S. NSA direct access to vast quantities of private communications hosted by Google, Facebook, Apple, and many other Internet companies.

Subsequent Snowden leaks exposed a wide range of other covert government spying projects being conducted in Canada. These revelations have made clear that the Five Eyes, including CSE, are engaged in online spying on a previously unheard of scale.

For many Canadians, the mid-2013 Snowden leaks marked the first time secretive agencies such as CSE and NSA were drawn into the media spotlight and subjected to public scrutiny. At the time, the government explicitly assured Canadians that they were not being “targeted” by CSE surveillance. Peter MacKay, then serving as Defence Minister responsible for CSE, told the House of Commons in June 2013 that:

"This program is specifically prohibited from looking at the information of Canadians. This program is very much directed at activities outside the country, foreign threats, in fact. There is rigorous oversight. There is legislation in place that specifically dictates what can and cannot be examined."62

Now, with the exposure of the CSE’s LEVITATION and email surveillance programs, Canadians have learned that, contrary to those clear assurances, their own government is in fact engaged in online surveillance on an indiscriminate, mass scale - and that Canadians are clearly among those impacted. As Michael Geist points out, “mass surveillance of a hundred million downloads every week by definition targets Canadians alongside Internet users from every corner of the globe.”63


A long track record of harmful surveillance


A wide range of other CSE programs make clear that this agency is engaged in activities that are undermining democracy here in Canada, while tarnishing Canada’s reputation overseas. Key examples include:

  • Spying on law-abiding Canadian air travellers: In January 2014, it was revealed that CSE monitored the free airport Wi-Fi at Pearson Airport64 to collect data on thousands of air travellers, including many Canadians, who were passing through the airport. The surveillance, conducted without a warrant, went as far as tracking travellers’ precise movements around the world for weeks afterwards. Responding to these revelations, privacy expert Ron Deibert described the activity as illegal and unconstitutional, telling the CBC, "I can't see any circumstance in which this would not be unlawful, under current Canadian law, under our Charter, under CSEC's mandates.”65

  • Spying on the Internet’s backbone: Documents published by Germany’s Der Spiegel66 have revealed that CSE, under a program codenamed EONBLUE, is actively monitoring vast amounts of private Internet traffic travelling across the Internet’s core. They have established over 200 locations from where, using a technique known as Deep Packet Inspection, they can examine almost everything that people do online, including the content of unencrypted communications. As Motherboard’s Matthew Braga points out, “Though the agency maintains it cannot legally track Canadians at home or abroad it is hard to fathom how such data could be exempt.”67

  • Spying on the Toronto G20 and G8 summits: The Snowden documents also reveal that CSE facilitated a huge U.S. NSA spying operation on Canadian soil during the Toronto G20 and G8 summits.68 According to the documents, the purpose of this operation was to “support U.S. policy goals.”69 The revelations sparked global outrage, particularly among Canada’s G20 partners.70
  • Spying on Brazil’s Mining and Energy Ministry: In 2013, it was revealed that CSE was conducting invasive surveillance against Brazil’s Mining and Energy Ministry, a key government department.71 Unsurprisingly, these reports triggered outrage in Brazil, and even prompted Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff to denounce Canada on Twitter.72

While this last example may not have directly undermined the privacy of Canadians, it certainly tarnishes Canada’s international reputation and other allies’ goodwill when it comes to respecting Canadians’ privacy and security. The exposure of this type of economic espionage also directly refutes the government’s oft-repeated claim that CSE’s spying activities are necessary to safeguard Canada’s national security. In this case, the spying was clearly aimed at undermining the economic interests of Brazil, supposedly a key Canadian ally in the Americas.


Guess who is footing the bill?


Of course, none of these activities come cheap. CSE’s rapidly increasing annual budget now costs taxpayers over $800 million73 each year. In large part this is due to the construction of an elaborate new headquarters building, dubbed a ‘spy palace’ by CBC News, featuring state-of-the-art architecture and luxury accommodations for government workers.

“The fritted glass on the curtain wall features patterns suggestive of the activities within and will be designed by the users.” - WZMH Architects, Overview of CSE HQ project.74

This new headquarters will cost $1.2 billion to build and a further $3 billion to operate,  making it the most expensive Canadian government building ever constructed.75 The extravagance of this project has understandably raised serious concerns about how enormous amounts of taxpayer money are being funneled into surveillance activity.

Internet Voice: “Horrifying that the Harper government decided The Great Lakes Research Centre that needed a few million dollars was too expensive and yet this CSE Spy Palace is justified.” - Moira R., Internet Town Hall participant

As we shall see later, it’s also notable that the government watchdog tasked with reviewing CSE activities is starved of funds, operates with a staff of just eight people, and has to make do with a budget of just $2 million per year.

Internet Voice: “A budgetary limit should be placed that adequately represents [the] value the agency provides Canadians. A billion dollar facility is just complete irresponsible spending. A billion dollars in health care would have saved more lives in one month than a spy agency could even help in several decades.” - Steve S.

In sum, Canadians are spending billions on a secretive, unaccountable government agency that is engaged in mass, suspicionless surveillance. Canadians, along with Internet users across the globe, are being caught in CSE’s spying dragnet, whereupon their personal information is shared with foreign agencies including the U.S. NSA.

There is no effective independent oversight whatsoever of this agency’s activities, which evidence increasingly suggests are actually making us less, not more, safe.76 It’s no wonder that debate is now turning to what needs to be done to rein in CSE and restore Canadians’ privacy rights.


[47] CSE recently underwent a name change, and is also familiar to Canadians as “CSEC”.

[48] Communications Security Establishment: About us: History. Source:

[49] Justice Laws Website: Anti-terrorism Act 2001. Source:  (not to be confused with Bill C-51, legislation introduced in 2015 which is also titled the Anti-terrorism Act)

[50] CBC News: Anti-terrorism Act has sparked legal, political challenges. Source:

[51] Toronto Star: Spy agency CSEC says goodbye to Canada. Source:

[52] Communications Security Establishment: About us: What we do and why we do it. Source:

[53] CBC News: CSE tracks millions of downloads daily: Snowden documents. Source:

[54] The Intercept: Canada casts global surveillance dragnet over file downloads. Source:

[55] Ibid. Source:

[56] CBC News: CSE monitors millions of Canadian emails to government. Source:

[57] The Intercept: Canadian spies collect domestic emails in secret security sweep. Source:

[58] For more on how revealing metadata can be, see

[59] The Globe and Mail: Spy agencies have turned our digital lives inside out. We need to watch them. Source:

[60] Toronto Star: Mere oversight won’t fix Tory surveillance bill - Geist. Source:

[61] The Guardian: NSA Prism program taps in to user data of Apple, Google and others. Source:

[62] Hansard, June 10 2013. Source:

[63] Toronto Star: Mere oversight won’t fix Tory surveillance bill - Geist. Source:

[64] Security analyst Bill Robinson concluded that the airport targeted by CSE was indeed Pearson. Source:

[65] CBC News: CSEC used airport Wi-Fi to track Canadian travellers: Edward Snowden Documents. Source:

[66] These slides are available on Der Spiegel’s website at

[67] Motherboard: How Canadian Spies infiltrated the Internet’s core to watch what you do online. Source:

[68] CBC News: New Snowden docs show U.S. spied during G20 in Toronto. Source:

[69] The Australian: Canada let NSA spy on G20, G8 summits. Source:

[70] BoingBoing: NSA and Canadian spooks illegally spied on diplomats at Toronto G20 summit. Source:

[71] CBC News: Canada’s spying touches nerve in Brazil. Source:

[72] Reuters: Brazil demands explanations from Canada over spying report. Source:

[73] Huffington Post: CSEC, Canada's Electronic Spying Agency, Gets $385-Million Budget Boost While Watchdogs Face Cuts. Source:

[74] WZMH Architects: Overview of CSE Headquarters Project. Source:

[75] CBC News: Inside Canada’s top secret billion dollar spy palace. Source:

[76] CBC News: CSE's Levitation project: Expert says spy agencies 'drowning in data' and unable to follow leads. Source: