President Barack Obama talks about National Security Agency (NSA)surveillance, Friday, Jan. 17, 2014, at the Justice Department in Washington.Seeking to calm a furor over U.S. surveillance, the president called for ending the government's control of phone data from -hundreds of millions of Americans and immediately ordered intelligence agencies to get a secretive court's permission before accessing the records. Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press
Canadian security officials have offered a muted response to the sweeping reforms U.S. President Barack Obama announced Friday on the way information is collected about American citizens in the name of preventing terrorism.
Obama pledged to put curbs on the U.S. National Security Agency's (NSA) practice of collecting phone data from millions of Americans.
He also announced the creation of a "mechanism" to hold the bulk telephone data rather than leaving the material in the hands of government.
Obama talked about a new safeguard, allowing NSA to pursue only two layers of contacts connected to a phone number associated with a terrorist organization, rather than the three ever-widening groups of phone contacts that previously would have had their call metadata scrutinized.
Canadian security establishments follow the same pattern as their American counterparts when it comes to collecting what is termed telephone metadata. As in the U.S., although the content of calls is not recorded and scrutinized, records are kept of phone numbers and the times the calls were made.
In his lengthy speech in Washington Obama observed, "Intelligence agencies cannot operate without secrecy," but added the caveat that the guarding of citizens' privacy cannot be left to merely the good intentions of government, but that laws must offer protection.
Obama's concerns not echoed in Canada
But Communication Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) did not echo that kind of concern Obama outlined in his address.
In an email to CBC News, a spokesperson for CSEC wrote, after viewing Obama's speech, "[CSEC] operates under its own legislative framework, and respects and complies with Canadian laws.
"The agency went on to say, "[CSEC's] activities are reviewed by the independent [CSEC] commissioner, who has specifically noted our culture of lawful compliance and genuine concern for protecting the privacy of Canadians."
In another development, The Canadian Press reported Friday that the massive intelligence leak by former U.S. spy contractor Edward Snowden prompted CSEC to review its policies on sharing information with the Americans and other partners.
A newly declassified undated memo obtained by The Canadian Press from CSEC chief John Forster to national security adviser Stephen Rigby says the unprecedented breach also sparked a CSEC examination of its practices for protecting the privacy of Canadians.
The memo goes on to say that CSEC set about assessing the potential damage to Canadian signals intelligence collection capabilities, as well as asking its partners for confirmation on what data Snowden took from the NSA.
Privacy experts worried
The enormous and, as Obama put it, "dizzying" pace of technological change leading to invasive data-grabs has worried privacy advocates, including Canada's.
Ann Cavoukian, Ontario's privacy commissioner, said in an interview with CBC News, "We should have much greater oversight, independent oversight, over CSEC's activities."
She added that at least Obama appeared publicly in front of the American people and spoke to this issue. In contrast, she said, "We have no public discourse on any of the issues associated with CSEC's activities, the surveillance activities on Canadians. We know nothing."
The interim Federal Privacy Commissioner Chantal Bernier was not available for an interview Friday. A spokesperson for her office said in an email, "We are currently conducting research into the issue of information-sharing controls, privacy protection and appropriate oversight for Canada's federal intelligence and law enforcement activities.
"We intend to provide recommendations to Parliament on this important issue in the coming weeks."
Jack Harris, the NDP's defence critic, praised Obama for taking what he called "an important first step" in recognizing the concerns about data-gathering and privacy.
"On the other hand, in Canada, we've got the door shut. There is no evidence whatsoever that we are considering or wrestling with these issues, in fact, they are not even prepared to talk about them."
Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who released the whistleblower reports about intrusive spying from Snowden, said many of the documents Snowden gave him were about CSEC and Canadian spying.
"Some of the material that we've already reported on, I think, underscores the need for greater transparency," said Greenwald, speaking from Rio de Janeiro to Rosemary Barton of CBC News Network's Power & Politics.
"And there are also more stories coming and coming relatively soon to Canada as well."
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