Surveillance

Everything we could find out about Canada’s secret spy database

After months of insisting that the documents didn’t exist, CSIS has finally released most of the memos detailing its top secret data analysis centre.

The five documents pertain to the Operational Data Analysis Centre, a wing of the intelligence agency which is responsible for analyzing data intercepted through online and physical surveillance of Canadians.

CSIS assured the minister that rules were in place to protect Canadians’ privacy.

That data centre has been the subject of controversy since last Fall, when the federal court found CSIS had been using it to store and analyze information incidentally collected on innocent Canadians — data on, say, a plumber who called a client whose phones were tapped — and that the service had deliberately withheld crucial details of the program from the court.

These newly released memos from CSIS to the minister of public safety from 2006 to 2016 explain how the data centre was first justified to Ottawa, and how the service had avoided giving details of the program, even to the government.

Previous VICE News and Motherboard reporting on the Operational Data Analysis Centre:

They show how much more forthcoming the spy agency was with the previous Conservative government.

A 2006 memo to then-Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day notified him of the interception project, and mentioned the centre by name. “Such an advanced data analysis program will address an intelligence failing noted by the 9/11 Commission — namely that the dots were known but not connected,” it stated then.

In a memo a decade later, Liberal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale was informed about CSIS’ work in the “collection, processing, use and retention of [metadata],” including on third-parties who were not under investigation, and that this had become a matter of discussion in the federal court case. But he was never told about the existence of the Operational Data Analysis Centre. CSIS assured the minister that rules were in place to protect Canadians’ privacy.

The details of exactly how the centre operates and to what end it has succeeded remains unclear.

The 2006 memo was blunt about the data centre, unlike the ones submitted to Goodale.

Sections of these memos have previously been reported by the Globe & Mail and the Toronto Star.

These five memos, obtained by VICE News after a series of other access to information requests came up with nothing, might not be everything.

A Parliamentary information request filed by NDP Member of Parliament Matthew Dube revealed that various ministers of public safety have received nine briefings, reports, and memos prepared by CSIS and sent to the minister’s office regarding ODAC since 2006 — a list which does not include three of the memos obtained by VICE News.

Public Safety Canada did not release any documentation from the other six briefings, some of which were verbal.

The details of exactly how the centre operates and to what end it has succeeded remains unclear.

That briefing never happened.

The memos do reveal that the CSIS director, in 2006, planned on consulting various departments and agencies on setting up the centre, and managing various privacy concerns, including: The Communication Security Establishment, which handles foreign signals intelligence; the Canada Revenue Agency and the Financial Transaction and Reports Analysis Centre, which tackle financial crime; and the Competition Bureau, which investigates various other white collar crimes.

“We also plan to brief the federal court on this initiative at an appropriate juncture,” the memo reads. That briefing never happened.

After that federal court decision, CSIS halted its metadata processing at the data analysis centre. That processing has since resumed, albeit without the metadata CSIS collected from those third-parties at issue in the federal court case.

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