The head of Canada's eavesdropping agency says a controversial effort to understand airport wireless systems did not breach the privacy of Canadians.
John Forster told a Senate committee Monday that Communications Security Establishment Canada was merely collecting electronic metadata — or data trails about messages — and not the actual content of those messages and calls.
A document obtained by CBC — originally leaked by former American spy contractor Edward Snowden — indicates the pilot project was intended to help the agency locate kidnappers and terrorists.
The CSEC slide presentation suggests information was taken from an unidentified Canadian airport's free Wi-Fi system over a two-week period.
But Forster told the senators that's not so.
"This exercise involved a snapshot of historical metadata collected from the global Internet," he said. "No data was collected through any monitoring of the operations of any airport — just part of our normal global collection."
The spy agency was trying to build a mathematical model to help determine a communication pattern at a public location, in this case an airport, he said.
The May 2012 presentation says the project could help security officials zero in on a kidnapper based in a rural area who travelled to a city to make ransom calls.
Forster said intelligence officials know terrorists or hostage-takers will often use public spaces, like an airport or cafe, to access the Internet, "because they're trying to hide in plain sight."
"So the model is very helpful, it can save time or work in an incident where time is critical."
The model has subsequently been used in at least two cases to identify legitimate foreign targets, he said.
Ottawa-based CSEC monitors foreign computer, satellite, radio and telephone traffic of people, states, organizations and terrorist groups for information of intelligence interest to Canada. It is a key player in the Five Eyes intelligence network that includes partner agencies from the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
CSEC is forbidden from targeting the private communications of Canadians. However, metadata is not considered a private communication for the spy service's purposes.