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Canadian Minister of Defense Responds to PEN's Surveillance Concerns

Thursday 29 January 2015 - 11:58am

Since the Snowden revelations of mass surveillance practices, PEN International has been campaigning on the ever growing threat which mass surveillance poses to internet freedom and the rights to privacy and freedom of expression. At its 80th World Congress in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan in September 2014, the Assembly of Delegates of PEN International passed a resolution on surveillance calling on ‘governments in the “Five Eyes Alliance*”, and all other governments implicated in or benefiting from mass surveillance, to immediately enact reforms that will end indiscriminate bulk collection of communications metadata and content, and bring surveillance programs into conformity with domestic and international law.’

Below is a response to PEN’s resolution from the Canadian Minister of Defence, Hon. Rob Nicholson, to PEN International's Executive Director, Carles Torner. As PEN responds to the assertions of this letter we will continue to monitor and highlight the impact of mass surveillance on journalists, writers and creative freedom and campaign for the reform of mass surveillance programmes.

* The “Five Eyes Alliance” refers to an intelligence alliance comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Ottawa, Canada  MA OK2

JAN 06 2015

Mr. Carles Torner
Executive Director
PEN International
Brownlow House
50/51 High Holborn
United Kingdom

Dear Mr. Torner:

I am writing in response to your letter addressed to Prime Minister Stephen Harper concerning surveillance issues and the resolution passed at the 80th PEN International Congress in October.

The first responsibility of any government is to protect the safety, security, and well-being of all of its citizens. It is a responsibility that the Government of Canada takes very seriously. As recent events
demonstrate, we live in a world with no shortage of threats, whether it is terrorism, attacks, kidnappings of Canadians abroad, or potential attacks on our embassies and military installations. Canadians look to the Government to help protect Canada from these threats while at the same time ensuring that their privacy rights are respected.

Foreign intelligence and cyber defence are key pieces of a strong national defence and security program. As Canada's foreign intelligence and cyber defence agency, the Canadian Communications Security Establishment (CSE) plays a vital role in keeping Canadians safe. It collects and analyzes foreign communications so that the Government is more aware of foreign threats to Canada and its citizens and can take the proper steps to protect against those serious threats.

CSE also works to protect important Canadian information systems and computer networks, in particular those of the Government of Canada. These systems are probed millions of times every day by those trying to attack them and steal the important information they contain. As we saw this past summer with the cyber attacks on the National Research Council, foreign cyber threats continue to be directed at Government of Canada systems. CSE is there every day to protect those systems.

In fulfilling these critical responsibilities, CSE is required to follow all Canadian laws. Most importantly, by law CSE does not direct its foreign intelligence and cyber-defence activities at Canadians anywhere or anyone in Canada.

As noted in your letter, CSE works with its international partners from the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand, collectively known as the Five Eyes. Canada benefits immeasurably from this partnership, which is based on the close collaboration shared by these countries, dating back to the Second World War. CSE activities must always comply with Canadian law, and Canadian law applies to CSE interactions with partner agencies. This means that CSE cannot circumvent Canadian law by asking a partner agency to do something that CSE is not permitted to do itself.

In working to protect Canadians every day, CSE takes protecting their privacy very seriously. The men and women of CSE are dedicated, hardworking public servants who uphold our nation's values and who respect and operate in accordance with all of our laws. CSE has strict policies and procedures in place to protect privacy.

Because CSE cannot publicly share specific details on much of what it does, strong external and independent review of its activities is critical. That is why CSE is one of the most highly scrutinized government organizations in Canada. The independent CSE Commissioner, the Honourable Jean-Pierre Plouffe, and his expert staff have complete and uninhibited access to CSE: its staff, its systems, and its documents and files, including the powers of subpoena. The Commissioner reports his findings and recommendations on each of his reviews to me, as Minister, and prepares an annual public report that I table in the House of Commons. In 17 years the CSE Commissioner has never found CSE to have acted unlawfully but has made over 100 recommendations to improve CSE policies and practices.

Commissioner Plouffe is well suited and qualified for this role. He has had a long and distinguished legal career, first in the office of the Judge Advocate General at the Department of National Defence, followed by time in private practice and subsequent appointments as a military judge, a judge of the Quebec Court, a Superior Court of Quebec judge, and a judge of the Court Martial Appeal Court of Canada. He and his staff bring experience, wisdom, and independence to this important role.

I trust that this information helps further your understanding of the vital importance of CSE in keeping Canada and its people safe from threats; the strong, independent and expert scrutiny under which it operates; and the profound respect it has for Canada's values, laws, and the privacy of Canadians.

Yours truly,

Hon. Rob Nicholson, PC, QC, MP c.c. Office of the Prime Minister.


Digital Freedom
PEN condemns GCHQ spying on journalists’ communications
Resolution on Surveillance passed at the 80th World Congress in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, September 2014
Global Chilling: The Impact of Mass Surveillance on International Writers
PEN Declaration on Digital Freedom