Canada seeks to boost transparency with new security review agency

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada’s government on Tuesday introduced legislation that would expand oversight of its security and intelligence agencies, while enabling the country’s electronic spy agency to assist the military with cyber operations.

Canada's Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale arrives at a news conference in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, June 20, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau intended the legislation to make good on a 2015 campaign pledge to modify a law passed by the former Conservative government that boosted powers of police and intelligence agencies.

The legislation would create a National Security and Intelligence Review Agency responsible for oversight of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), cyber-spy agency the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) and other departments including the Canadian Border Services Agency.

It would replace current oversight bodies at the two spy agencies and review “every other department and agency of the government of Canada that has a security or intelligence function,” Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told reporters.

It would work alongside a separate oversight committee of members of parliament that has been proposed in another bill, Goodale said.

Given the Liberal majority in Parliament, the bill is expected to be passed into law, though it is unlikely to be debated until fall at the earliest. One expert said he remained uneasy that the government was expanding its cyber capabilities.

The government also proposed to clarify CSE’s mandate and said the cyber-spy agency will be allowed to take action online to defend Canadian networks and stop cyber threats.

CSE monitors electronic communication and helps protect national computer networks.

“For any type of potential cyber threats,” the measures would allow CSE “to prevent an attack that comes on us rather than waiting for an attack to actually occur,” Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan said at the press conference.

Ron Deibert, director of The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, said he was concerned to see the Canadian government expand potential operations.

“We’re at a time when cyberspace is under threat, and it’s already very unstable,” said Deibert, a well-known expert on digital surveillance and internet censorship. “There are many governments that have built up offensive capabilities and now we’re actively contributing to that.”

The agency will also be allowed to assist the Canadian Armed Forces with cyber operations.

The legislation would also create an independent intelligence commissioner that would oversee the authorization of certain types of intelligence gathering and cyber operations.

Reporting by Leah Schnurr in Toronto; editing by Jim Finkle and David Gregorio