During the heated national debate over Bill C-59, which enacted sweeping changes to how Canada’s spy agencies operate, the Citizen Lab’s Lex Gill and Christoper Parsons posed some tough questions about the legislation. 

Writing for Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, Gill and Parsons proposed a list of probing questions that journalists and Members of Parliament should demand answers to before bill C-59 is passed into law. The questions focused on Canada’s signals intelligence agency, CSE, and whether it has undertaken the same activities as its American and British counterparts, the NSA and GCHQ. These two agencies have collected massive amounts of data on innocent people from telecom providers, have secret programs that can turn on private webcams, and have engaged in other activities that raise serious human rights and privacy concerns. 

Gill and Parsons also point out that the lack of transparency around how CSE operates means Canadians have little idea whether—or how much—their government is spying on them. They argue that Bill C-59, which was later passed into law, does not do enough to increase the intelligence agency’s accountability to the citizens it serves. 

“While some of the secrecy under which these agencies operate is clearly warranted, the CSE’s lack of transparency means it is impossible to fully understand how the agency operates,” they write. “Before having a debate about what the CSE should be allowed to do under the new law, we need to better understand both its past and present conduct.”

Gill and Parsons also point out that the new law apparently allows CSE the latitude to conduct the same privacy-threatening operations as British and American spy agencies have in the past.