Editorial: Spies and lies

Published on December 13, 2016

Information security


This goes from the sublime to the bizarre — and beyond.

Back in November, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service found itself in the hottest of hot water: a Federal Court judge ruled that the spy agency had broken the law by collecting and storing information it was not legally entitled to gather — in particular, metadata on innocent Canadians unconnected in any way with legal investigations.

The judge ruled, in fact, that CSIS deliberately misled the court when the agency had applied for special warrants to collect documents. It was a huge embarrassment for the spies, especially when the federal government announced it would not appeal the ruling.

The information was collected starting in 2006, and processed through the secretive Operational Data Analysis Centre. But things are twistier than just a decade’s worth of private information unlawfully held by the agency.

Last week, a federal committee was told that the spy agency hasn’t gotten rid of the material it was never supposed to have, even though it was illegally collected in the first place.

CSIS director Michel Coulombe told the committee that it should know, within six months or so, what it will do with the data. And federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told MPs on the committee that he’s still deciding whether the spy agency should be allowed to retain and process such information.

In other words, having been found to have illegally taken something, the government is pondering keeping it anyway.

In fact, CSIS has even claimed that now that it has possession of the information, the agency is legally mandated to ensure that it doesn’t dispose of anything that might be needed for a future investigation.

Here’s Coulombe’s explanation to the committee: “So before we rush and destroy that information, we have to make sure that by destroying it we’re not going to be contravening another court decision. … We have to take the time to do that analysis.”

Now, maybe this is not the proper way to look at it, but it sure seems like CSIS is arguing that the law somehow requires it to use unlawfully acquired information. Imagine how that would play out in court: the moment you tried to use illegally obtained information as evidence, the whole shooting match would be tossed out. So what’s the point of looking for potentially illegal needles in that massive legal haystack?

Here’s a helpful pointer that even national security agencies can ponder: when you appear before a judge to obtain a warrant and you’re under oath, tell the judge the truth.

When you collect information, do it legally, or not at all.

And maybe just one more thing: if you’re found to have broken the law, you get fired.