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CSIS stymied by tech-savvy terrorists
Canada accused of lagging in effort to update security technology
James Gordon
The Ottawa Citizen

Canada's spy agency is having trouble keeping tabs on technologically knowledgeable terrorists and criminals, an internal document suggests, and outdated laws are to blame.

"With the emergence of new technologies on an almost daily basis, CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) finds it increasingly difficult to maintain its intercept capability," reads a briefing report prepared for the agency's director in February.

"Terrorists today are sophisticated and well-versed in the usage of technology and, as such, can be more difficult to track."

The note, obtained by the Citizen under the Access to Information Act, makes a pitch for "lawful access" legislation, which would force telephone and Internet companies to open up their networks to more snooping by law enforcement.

The move would make it easier to tap rapidly-changing e-mail and voice-over-Internet communications.

CSIS spokeswoman Barbara Campion says the legislation would ensure the agency has the same access to information it had when terrorists used the mail, rotary phones and analog technology.

"We need to modernize our investigative techniques -- it's essential to maintaining the ability of CSIS to protect the public from threats," she says.

Ms. Campion wouldn't comment on whether Canadians are at risk as a direct result of not having the laws in place, but allowed it "certainly is becoming increasingly difficult for us" to track people on the Internet.

American police officials have already chastised Canada for dragging its feet on lawful access, suggesting the country is becoming a liability in the war on terror.

In a speech in Ottawa last year, Mike Kirkpatrick, assistant director for FBI Criminal Justice Information Services, said it would be "desirable" to harmonize Canadian and U.S. wiretapping laws.

"You're only as strong as your weakest link, so if you have places that don't adopt, then that's a weak link," he said.

Criticism hasn't fast-tracked the process. The Canadian laws were first proposed in 2000, but there's still no word as to when -- or whether -- any will be adopted.

Consultations took place in 2002 and 2003, and Justice Canada spokesman Christian Girouard says the department held a second series of talks this year.

He couldn't say why they were necessary, other than to "make sure everything was hashed out and discussed."

Nor could he say when the department expects to draft an actual bill to address the need, or why the process has taken this long.

"Sometimes it's longer, and sometimes it's shorter if it's something that's quite simple," he says. "I guess, with this being a complicated area, it's good to look at all the aspects before moving forward."

Ex-CSIS spy Michel Juneau-Katsuya, now an Ottawa-based national security consultant, says the intercept challenge has been with the agency for decades.

"Basically, with the arrival of fibre-optics, high-speed, cellphones, calling cards ... all those things, it became a nightmare for the law enforcement and CSIS to be capable to intercept communications," he says.

Mr. Juneau-Katsuya says that while many Canadian firms already co-operate with CSIS, lawful access legislation could be a useful tool.

"This is the era where we are. We can try to negate this reality, but at the end of the day, you're gonna have difficulties to fight an enemy that's using all types of technology and stealth itself," he explains. "That's what the nature of what terrorism is about."

He's quick to add that appropriate controls must be put in place, however.

"You've got to see the proper framework. You don't want to just give carte blanche ... that would be insane."

Privacy advocates agree, and they aren't keen on giving CSIS and police more powers than they already possess under the Criminal Code and the CSIS Act.

In a document summarizing responses to the Justice Department's initial round of public consultations on lawful access, Canada's privacy and information commissioners called on federal officials to prove the legislation is necessary.

"The Government of Canada should only proceed further with the lawful access proposals if clear evidence is offered to support the need for changes," the document reads.

"Most certainly, the Government of Canada should not proceed simply because it is expedient to do so in the post-September 11 climate of fear and insecurity."

© The Ottawa Citizen 2005

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