OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's government on Monday declined to say whether it was using data gathered by a secret U.S. government eavesdropping program, but confirmed its own secret signals intelligence agency was monitoring foreign phone and internet traffic.
An ex-CIA employee working as a contractor for the U.S. National Security Agency says the NSA is running a massive surveillance program called Prism that scoops up information from phone companies as well as internet data from large companies such as Google and Facebook.
His revelations have launched a broad debate on privacy rights and the limits of security programs in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.
Pressed by opposition legislators as to whether Canada was making use of Prism data, Defense Minister Peter MacKay did not answer the question.
Instead, he referred to the practices of Canada's top secret Communication Security Establishment (CSE), a branch of the defense ministry that specializes in gathering signals intelligence abroad.
"CSE does not target communications of Canadians. This is foreign intelligence. This is something that has been happening for years," he told the House of Commons.
Canada works very closely with the United States, which along with Britain, New Zealand and Australia belong to the so-called Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network.
MacKay confirmed a report in the Globe and Mail newspaper that said CSE - which is not allowed to monitor domestic telecommunications or target Canadians - runs a global electronic eavesdropping program designed to detect patterns of suspicious activity.
Like Prism, the CSE program collects data about calls rather than the content of the calls, the Globe said, citing documents obtained under access to information legislation.
"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," MacKay said.
The documents obtained by the Globe showed that MacKay signed a ministerial directive approving an updated version of the program on November 21, 2011.
The Globe said CSE had suspended a previous version of the program for more than a year in 2008 after a federal watchdog raised concerns it could lead to warrantless surveillance of Canadians.
Jack Harris, defense spokesman for the official opposition New Democrats, said MacKay had not made clear whether Canada had access to Prism data. Harris also noted that federal authorities needed a court order to eavesdrop on Canadians.
"What access to personal information about Canadians or citizens does the government collect and is it appropriate that they do that without the authority of the courts ... through Prism and on its own?" he asked.
Canada's privacy commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, said she was alarmed by the reports on Prism and would press to see if Canadians have been affected, a spokesman said on Monday.
She will also contact data protection authorities around the world to discuss whether to mount a joint fact-finding effort into the recent revelations, he added.
(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Peter Galloway, Janet Guttsman and Paul Simao)