Canada’s New Way to Spy on You

Snowden documents show Canada used free airport Wi-Fi to track travelers.

Royal Canadian Mounted Police pose for a photograph during Canada Day Celebrations on July 1, 2011 in Ottawa, Canada.
National Journal
Alex Brown
Add to Briefcase
Alex Brown
Jan. 31, 2014, 8:30 a.m.

Canada’s elec­tron­ic spy agency snooped on trav­el­ers who used free air­port Wi-Fi — and tracked them long after they left, ac­cord­ing to newly re­leased files provided by former NSA con­tract­or Ed­ward Snowden.

And while our north­ern neigh­bors squabble over the leg­al­ity of Com­mu­nic­a­tions Se­cur­ity Es­tab­lish­ment Canada’s data-col­lec­tion pro­gram, it could have big­ger rami­fic­a­tions in the U.S. The Snowden doc­u­ment shows the track­ing was launched with the help of the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency, part of a tri­al run for a new soft­ware pro­gram. CBC re­ports the tech­no­logy has be­come fully op­er­a­tion­al since the 2012 test.

Ex­perts say the spy­ing is il­leg­al un­der Ca­na­dian law, which pro­hib­its spy agen­cies from tar­get­ing Ca­na­dian cit­izens — or any­one in Canada — without a war­rant. CSEC denied it col­lec­ted con­tent from people’s phones, but de­fen­ded its tra­cing of metadata — which can be used to track loc­a­tion and see all in­com­ing and out­go­ing calls.

After the agency picked up Wi-Fi devices at the as-yet-uniden­ti­fied Ca­na­dian air­port, it was able to track them for more than a week as they popped up at oth­er Wi-Fi loc­a­tions in Canada and at U.S. air­ports. Ca­na­dian cy­ber­se­cur­ity ex­pert Ron­ald Deibert told CBC the agency would have had no trouble identi­fy­ing in­di­vidu­als based on the metadata it ob­tained.

The Snowden doc­u­ment in­dic­ated the Wi-Fi data was ob­tained through a “spe­cial source” — both the Toronto and Van­couver air­ports denied provid­ing that in­form­a­tion. Air­port Wi-Fi pro­vider Boingo also said it was not in­volved.

Not only was the NSA in­volved in the Ca­na­dian tri­al run — CSEC called the tech­no­logy “game-chan­ging” — but ex­perts say the Ca­na­dians also planned to share the tech­no­logy and the in­tel­li­gence it pro­duced with the U.S., Bri­tain, New Zea­l­and, and Aus­tralia. It’s un­clear if the pro­gram has been de­ployed else­where.

Thanks to the TSA, Amer­ic­ans are used to pri­vacy vi­ol­a­tions when they head to the air­port. But it’s no sure bet the in­tru­sions have ended once you get through the body scan­ner.

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