About this Project

This blog comments on Canadian (and occasionally comparative) national security law to update my National Security Law textbook and now also my 2015 book, False Security: The Radicalization of Anti-terrorism, co-authored with Kent Roach.

Please also see www.antiterrorlaw.ca for Bill C-51-related analyses by Craig Forcese and Kent Roach.

For narrated lectures on various topics in national security law, please visit my 2017 "national security nutshell" series, available through iTunes.


For a continuing conversation on Canadian national security law and policy, please join Stephanie Carvin and me at A Podcast Called INTREPID.


Please also visit my archive of "secret law" in the security area.

By Craig Forcese

Full Professor
Faculty of Law

Email: cforcese[at]uottawa.ca

Twitter: @cforcese


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The Judicialization of Bulk Powers for Intelligence Agencies

Personal Speaking Notes (February 2018)

(posted publicly with permission)        

I have been asked to reflect on common trans-Atlantic intelligence dilemmas, and then a variation on our traditional trans-Atlantic search for solutions.  To that end, I’ll say a few words about both the UK Investigatory Powers Act and some of the proposed aspects of bill C-59. 

In some large measure, both the UK IPA (Investigatory Powers Act) and C-59 constitute what former CSIS director Jim Judd once called “the judicialization of intelligence”. Mr Judd raised concerns about this development.  Intelligence has traditionally operated in a manner obliquely governed by law, if at all. There is a disconnect between a covert intelligence function – and its requirements – and the more overt culture of law and lawyers and judges. Intelligence needs are fluid.  Law is rigid. Intelligence needs are immediate and exigent. Law can be laborious.

But law has inevitably encroached on intelligence. An academic colleague – Dennis Molinero – has uncovered a trove of documents from the 1950s.  At that time, these documents show, national security domestic intercept warrants were issued by Prime Minister Louis St Laurent as an exercise of discretionary power under something called the Emergency Powers Act. There was the vaguest of statutory imprimaturs, and certainly no independent judicial oversight in the form of preauthorization.

We abandoned that approach in 1974, and the original iteration of the what is now Part VI of the Criminal Code.  And in 1984, we built CSIS search and seizure around a judicial warrant process – and the next year, the Supreme Court decided Hunter v Southam. Since then, in cases like the Federal Court of Appeal’s decision in Atwal, through to Justice Crompton’s recent decision in the In the Matter of Islamist Terrorism case, the domestic intelligence search and seizure expectations have been placed on a constitutional footing largely indistinguishable from that of criminal law.

In the IPA, the UK has moved considerably closer to our model than had been the case before. Once the purview of ministers, executive warrantry is now supplemented by review by judicial commissioners.  The shorthand is: double-lock (executive approval of a warrant supplemented by judicial review, prior to execution).

But in Canada, we have yet to address two dilemmas also at issue in the IPA. Both fall in the realm of what in the UK context is called “bulk powers”.  And since in bill C-59 we moving in this area, and judicializing, it is on this topic I wish to focus a few remarks.

So first, let me define bulk powers: a bulk power is one that allows intelligence agencies access to a large quantity of data, most of which is not associated with existing targets of investigation. It is the mass access, in other words, to data from a population not itself suspected of threat-related activity. The commonplace example, since Snowden, is internet or telephony metadata for entire populations of communications users.  But bulk powers can also involve content, and not just the metadata surrounding that content.

Bulk powers are controversial – they are the heart of the post-Snowden preoccupations. They inevitably raise new questions around privacy, and in the Canadian context, Charter rights.  Not least: bulk powers are irreconcilable with the requirements of classic warrants. There is no specificity. By definition, bulk powers are not targeted; they are indiscriminate.

In the IPA context, the world of bulk powers can be divided into bulk interception; bulk equipment interference; bulk acquisition; and bulk personal datasets.  Of these, I want to focus on bulk interception and bulk personal datasets.

Bulk interception is what is sounds like: the collection of transiting communications passing through communications providers or otherwise through the ether. 

Canadian law permits bulk collection by the Communications Security Established, our signals intelligence service. It is subject to the caveat that acting under its foreign intelligence or cyber security mandate, CSE may not direct its activities at Canadians or persons in Canada. But in practice, bulk interception cannot be limited to foreigners, even if the objective is foreign intelligence. The way communications transit the internet and other communications systems creates a certainty that bulk intercept directed outside the country will intercept the communications of Canadians and persons in Canada.  This is known as incidental collection.

In Canada, we have struggled with this issue. Part of the answer is in Part VI Criminal Code. As you know, it outlaws unauthorized intercept of private communications. A private communication is one with at least one end in Canada. Since in bulk interception, at least some private communications would be captured in a manner meeting this definition of intercept in Part VI, CSE must be exempted from its reach.  And that is what the National Defence Act does, where CSE acquires a defence minister authorization in advance for at least the class of foreign intelligence or cybersecurity activities that might capture this private communication.

The constitutional issue is more fraught. Not least, the defence minister is not the independent judicial officer invoked as the gold standard under Hunter v Southam for Charter section 8.  The consequence has been the constitutional lawsuit brought against CSE by the BCCLA associations and now efforts at refinement in C-59.  And specifically, C-59 anticipates a quasi-judicial intelligence commissioner who will review the ministerial authorization before its execution. This past week, representatives of the CSE testifying before the Commons committee accepted the underlying constitutional expectation: They said under C-59, CSE will seek ministerial authorization (which in term triggers review by the intelligence commissioner) for any activity that would interfere with the reasonable expectation of privacy of a Canadian or a person in Canada, or contravene an Act of Parliament.

I am hoping that signals a willingness to amend the bill to say just that, on its face, but for our part my key point is this: C-59 clearly accepts the underlying premise: judicialization of bulk intelligence interception. In this respect, C-59 emulates the IPA.

But I wish to be clear, again: this is not a warrant. It will lack specificity. It will be issued for classes of activities, not specific activities or operations. It is review on reasonableness of a ministerial authorization, not the more hands-on warrant process. Does that meet Hunter’s standards?  I am inclined to suggest, yes, because the warrant cookie cutter cannot possibly apply to a form of bulk intercept in which intercept of s.8 rights-bearer communications is entirely incidental, and not targeted.

Before leaving CSE, I will say a word about another C-59 change.

We have also gone one step further than the IPA in giving CSE a specific offensive cyber mandate – called active cyber.  This could and almost certainly would implicate equipment interference, but interference untied to information acquisition and instead done “on or through the global information infrastructure to degrade, disrupt, influence, respond to or interfere with the capabilities, intentions or activities of a foreign individual, state, organization or terrorist group as they relate to international affairs, defence or security.” 

At present, there is considerable debate in Parliament about whether the intelligence commissioner should have advance oversight responsibilities in relation to this mandate.  Currently, he or she will not.  I am of two views on whether judicialization in this area would be wise or not.

Turning to domestic-facing bulk powers, I need to switch agencies and talk about CSIS.  And here we have drawn clear inspiration from the IPA in the area of bulk personal datasets.  The UK understanding of this expression is an apt descriptor of what is now also in play in Canada:

"A bulk personal dataset includes personal data relating to a number of individuals, and the nature of that set is such that the majority of individuals contained within it are not, and are unlikely to become, of interest to the intelligence services in the exercise of their statutory functions. Typically these datasets are very large, and of a size which means they cannot be processed manually."

Why have such things? The C-59 changes are a response, yes, to the Federal Court’s 2016 decision on what was known as ODAC.  But it also responds to a broader concern about the ambit of the Service’s threat investigation mandate. That mandate is anchored in s.12 of the CSIS Act. As interpreted by the courts, it permits the Service to collect, and analyse and retain information and intelligence respecting activities that may on reasonable grounds be suspected of constituting threats to the security of Canada, to the extent strictly necessary.  As Justice Noel and Justice Crampton concluded in both the ODAC case and the more recent In the Matter of Islamist Terrorism decision, this is a significant fetter on CSIS. It ties information collection, retention and analysis to a narrow band of threat investigations.  It also makes it difficult for CSIS to change the frequency of its fish radar and expand its reach to search other parts of the ocean for fish that have not already come to its attention.

A spy service fishing in more ocean is, in some eyes, the stuff of Big Brother and nightmares. On the other hand, an intelligence service that cannot have access to the ocean in performing its function is also likely unable to perform its functions very well.  And there is a lot of ocean out there in the digital era.  So how can we reconcile oceans full of data generated by innocents with the intelligence function of clearing the fog of uncertainty and revealing not just the known threats but also the unknown threats?

The solution in both the UK and Canadian context is to judicialize the fish detecting radar. And the model is again a double lock: ministerial approval for ingestion of datasets and judicial commissioner approval.

The result, in the Canadian context, is enormous complexity. Broadly speaking, there are a set of legislated rules in C-59 for the ingestion of datasets, and then a more demanding set of rules for the digestion. (I credit a Department of Justice lawyer for this ingestion/digestion analogy, which is quite apt).  So for Canadian datasets – datasets primarily comprising Canadian information – there is approval of classes of datasets that may be ingested by CSIS by both the minister and the quasi-judicial intelligence commissioner.  Once ingested, there is a limited vetting by CSIS.  And then any subsequent retention for actual use – that is digestion -- must be approved by the Federal Court, which is empowered to impose conditions on that subsequent use.  There is also a requirement that querying generally be done only where strictly necessary in performance of CSIS’s mandates.

I have included charts in the materials. (See also here).

Those charts show why some intelligence operators complain that C-59 is a gift to lawyers.  I suppose it is no surprise, then, that I think this is a clever regime.  Not least, it short circuits inevitable frontier s.8 issues; to wit, does s.8 attach to the big data analysis of information, the individual bits of which triggers no reasonable expectation of privacy. It seems almost certain that the jurisprudence will get there. C-59 heads this issue off at the pass by superimposing independent judicial authorization guiding and conditioning that big data analysis.

So, on that happy note, I shall end there.

Thank you.


Does CSE risk a Re X moment with the current drafting in C-59?

This is a third quick posting on some of issues I have been wondering about in the CSE Act, proposed by bill C-59. I have not reviewed all the submissions to the Commons national security committee (which have been often excellent and thoughtful).  But I am not aware of any discussion so far on today’s topic: lining the CSE Act up with international law.

Here, my preoccupation is with active and defensive cyber operations, and not foreign intelligence collection.  The latter raises arguably similar international law issues, but I have canvassed those elsewhere, in other contexts. (See here and here). (On this issue, I am in receipt of a new article from European colleagues examining this same question – which I look very much forward to reading.)

Nor do my remarks relate to CSE’s (cyber) participation in an armed conflict. Such involvement would, I assume, arise in an exercise of the CSE’s assistance mandate, in relation to the Canadian Armed Forces. There, an obvious concern is with CSE’s direct participation in hostilities, while an unprivileged belligerent (that is, something other than an armed force). This prospect raises real concerns under the laws of armed conflict.  Not least: participating CSE employees could be targeted and prosecuted for their conduct, enjoying neither protected status or combatant’s immunity. But I hope to able to point readers to an excellent digest of those issues by a more expert analyst soon.

My focus here is on CSE’s autonomous active/defensive cyber mandate, anticipated in sections 19 and 20 of the proposed Act. And so, active cyber may involve activities on or through the global information infrastructure to degrade, disrupt, influence, respond to or interfere with the capabilities, intentions or activities of a foreign individual, state, organization or terrorist group as they relate to international affairs, defence or security.

That is a vast mandate, constrained by a caveat that the activities be outward facing from Canada and not cause (intentionally or by criminal negligence) death or bodily harm or willfully attempt in any manner to obstruct, pervert or defeat the course of justice or democracy.

CSE is exempted from a narrow range of law

Cyber ops must be authorized by the defence minister (in the case of active cyber, blessed or requested by the foreign affairs minister). But the activity itself need not comply with “any other Act of Parliament or of any foreign state” (s.31; 30).  As far as I can tell, this is the only carve-out pertaining to other legal regimes applicable to cyber ops.  (If I am missing something, happy to be disabused.)

And the modest scope of this carve-out is what gives me pause. If it enacts this provision, Parliament authorizes violations of federal and foreign “Acts”, something it is free to do in a system based on parliamentary sovereignty.

CSE is not exempted from international law

Parliament is also free to authorize violations of Canada’s international law obligations. This does not relieve Canada of state responsibility in international law for such violations.  But it does make it legally possible in domestic law to violate international law.  But herein lies the rub. The Supreme Court has made it abundantly clear that Parliament is assumed to legislate in compliance with Canada’s international obligations, and that deviations from this presumption cannot be presumed. Instead, there must be “unequivocal legislative intent to default on an international obligation”.  See Hape, para. 53.

This was the exact issue that ensnarled CSIS in the Re X decision on extraterritorial invasive surveillance. Parliament corrected that problem in bill C-44 (2015), by permitting the Federal Court to authorize warrants even in violation of foreign or “other” law. “Other” in the context might reasonably be construed as “international”, although it might be argued otherwise.

Strangely, the CSE Act does not do this. It does not replicate the CSIS bill C-44 formula of “foreign and other laws”. It reaches, at best, foreign “Acts” (that is, primary legislation). I do not see how this reference to “Acts” can be read to empower CSE to violate international law. (Indeed, I do not see it as unambiguously authorizing violations of other possible sources of foreign law – for instance, constitutional, common law or regulations or equivalents. But the international law issue is the big question, since it binds Canada). There is much international law indisputably applicable to Canada that is not codified or covered in foreign “Acts”.  Indeed, it would be incongruous, indeed patently ridiculous, to assert that foreign “Acts” constitute the sum total of international obligations binding on Canada.

International law precludes extraterritorial exercise of enforcement jurisdiction

Accordingly, were I giving legal advice in relation to an active cyber operation, I would conclude that CSE cannot act, unless that cyber operation complies with international law. And that raises the big issue: international law precludes the exercise by a state of “enforcement jurisdiction” on the territory of another states, without its consent or some other permissive rule of international law. I have discussed here the application of the “enforcement jurisdiction” in a cyber context. Where it might exist will be debated, on the margins. But the more kinetic the impact of the active cyber, the more likely the violation of this norm.

(And I’d add that the permission to breach “Acts of Parliament” offers no different answer on this question.  As Hape notes, customary international law – of which the bar on extraterritorial enforcement jurisdiction is a part – is considered part of the common law of Canada – and that is only displaced by statute. The CSE Act does not displace it. It does not displace any Canadian law other than “Acts of Parliament”.)

The result should be a real and significant fetter on exactly what sort of activity CSE can perform as part of its unilateral active/defensive cyber mandate.

I have no real issue with this as a policy choice – by disposition I am not tremendously keen on a state doing an end-run around established doctrines of international law using data streams where it cannot use corporeal bodies.

Was this a policy choice or a drafting issue?

My concern is, however, that the government may not have fully turned its mind to this issue in designing the CSE Act. Put another way, it may have drafted an outcome it does not intend to honour. If it really does think it has exempted CSE from the considerable strictures of international law, and CSE acts accordingly, CSE may have its own Re X moment. If its policy objective is a muscular cyber ops capacity, the government may wish to have Parliament speak on the international law issue in an amendment – because silence retains the full international law fetter.

(And if that weren’t enough, we need to look over our shoulders at this throw-away line from the Supreme Court in Hape: “Neither Parliament nor the provincial legislatures have the power to authorize the enforcement of Canada’s laws over matters in the exclusive territorial jurisdiction of another state.” We’ll assume that the Supreme Court did not mean to suggest that Parliament lacks jurisdiction – period – to authorize invasions of a foreign state’s sovereignty.) 

It is true this kind of esoteric legal issue may never be adjudicated. But people have been saying things like that for years. I am still waiting for it to be true.


The (Quasi) Judicialization of CSE Cyber Operations (Active & Defensive)


As noted in my prior post, there are a number of really interesting briefs prepared by various stakeholders, going into the next round of House of Commons legislative hearings on bill C-59.  Many seek to ratchet tighter the accountability structures in the bill, especially for CSE and CSIS (where they don’t call for the outright abandonment of these agencies’ proposed new powers).

I haven’t had chance to review all the specific ideas, but two of these sets of recommendations stand out for me in this area.  In my last post, I addressed the question of “publicly available information”.  In this one, I want to noodle through the extremely complex question of whether the Intelligence Commissioner should have oversight jurisdiction to vet and approve, in advance, and on a reasonableness standard CSE’s proposed active and defensive operations (“cyber ops”).

Citizen Lab and the current CSE commissioner have both urged this role for the new Intelligence Commissioner, supplementing that official’s responsibility to vet ministerial authorizations issued for foreign intelligence (FI) and cybersecurity (CS).  (As an aside: for my part, I have suggested that the ministerial authorizations for FI and CS do not meet constitutional standards, because they are only required where CSE violates an “Act” through its collection.  So if at issue was “private communication”, intercept without authorization would violate the Criminal Code.  But the government has argued that private communication does not include metadata.  In fact, there is no Act of Parliament violated by the foreign collection of metadata, including the incidental collection of Canadian metadata -- if there was, CSE would have been violating it for years. And so, under the current drafting of C-59, there is no requirement to seek a ministerial authorization vetted by the IC.  And yet, there is a clear constitutional privacy interest in that metadata. There is *nothing* in either the current CSE law or the proposed CSE Act that meets the standards in the jurisprudence permitting “warrantless” intercepts -- or could meet that standard, in my view, given the nature of CSE’s bulk activities. End result: a new constitutional lawsuit, scandal, acrimony, disaster. Please, please fix this! Make sure the authorization process is triggered by all collection activities or classes of activities that engage information in which a Canadian or person in Canada has a reasonable expectation of privacy.)

The CSE Act Structures Cyber Ops MAs and FI/CS MAs Differently

But back to the proposal to extend the IC function to cyber-ops.  First observation: for cyber-ops, ministerial authorizations are required for all cyber-ops (s. 23(2)(b)).  This isn’t like FI and CS, where there is a trigger obliging some activities to go for approval and not others (s.23(3) and (4)). In my comment above, I suggest the FI/CS MA trigger is too narrow. I *want* to steer FI and CS activities that implicate Charter rights into the MA and then the IC process. But I am not proposing steering those that *do not* otherwise violate Canadian law through this process.  I do not think, for instance, that a CSE targeted intercept that collected the telephone call of a foreign person in a foreign state, with no prospect of any nexus to Canada, attracts Charter rights. Without embarking in a discussion of the Supreme Court’s (unclear) Hape decision, it would be unlikely that the Charter applies, and that the target has any section 8 rights. And I am not among those inclined to think international law imposes meaningful privacy obligations on Canada in these circumstances – and certainly not a judicial pre-authorization requirement.  I do think there could be extraterritorial enforcement jurisdiction violations in international law, but in the area of spying it is a close call; international law is, as I have said, creatively ambiguous in this area. So I would not embark on the “judicialization of intelligence” in such a manner, again assuming there was no prospect of a Canadian nexus.  I make these sorts of points in greater detail in this article.

So my initial point: To simply superimpose IC oversight on cyber ops MA means, under the current architecture, asking the IC to approve all CSE cyber ops activities. (ss. 30 and 31). 

Would this be a good thing?

That may sound like a good idea right out of the gate.  But I have been going around in circles because I find it complex. I thought I’d memorialize my struggles.

  • First, cyber ops should not, if the Act is applied properly, implicate the collection of information, except as properly authorized by a FI/CS authorization (s.35(4)).  Right away, this makes it unlawful under the statute to use cyber ops as a stalking horse for some sort of autonomous information collection activity (on top of likely unconstitutional to the extent that information collected does attract s.8 protections). So the privacy issues should be muted here, even if the activities authorized by the cyber op authorization may involve some of the same techniques/practices.
  • Second, some cyber ops may implicate other Charter rights and Canadian law. At first blush, this may be rare (even very rare) because those rights and laws are usually confined to the territory of Canada. That said, the “real and substantial connection” test may make things like criminal mischief commenced here and remotely conducted against a foreign computer a crime with a sufficient nexus to Canada. But I am not sure that superimposing the IC into the approval process for such actions is an *obligation*.  We do allow our security services to break statute law in pursuing aspects of their mandate and we don’t always require pre-authorization by a judicial officer.  For example, Criminal Code, s.25.1 for the police allows law-breaking through administrative approvals within the police services.  On the other hand, CSIS threat reduction power does oblige judicial pre-authorization for breaches of Canadian law, which would presumably include overseas conduct that, on a real and substantial connection to Canada basis, violates Canadian law (or in some other manner where the Canadian law applies extraterritorially).  The CSE Commissioner, in his brief, points to this CSIS precedent to justify his view that cyber ops should be subjected to IC oversight. It is hard to argue against this parallel.
  • Third, international law may be breached by cyber ops.  (And indeed, international law is likely breached by CSIS extraterritorial threat reduction and perhaps intrusive surveillance done in violation of a foreign state’s laws, and thus its sovereignty.  That is a violation in the area of extraterritorial enforcement jurisdiction.  I have argued that this international law breach would require pre-authorization by the Federal Court, under the current CSIS Act. See here.) Invasive cyber conduct and international law is an issue I have discussed here, in the context of covert action.

This third argument is a strong justification for an IC involvement in cyber op authorizations.  But it depends on a final supposition: that either international law or domestic law or good policy is served by having an independent judicial officer scrutinize Canada’s international conduct and bless (or not) breaches of it. There are many, many areas where Canada’s international obligations are engaged where we do not involve pre-vetting by judges. The overseas conduct of the Canadian Armed Forces is an example.  When the Canadian Armed Forces chooses to bombard an enemy, say in Afghanistan, it is reviewed for legality under international law, most notably by the JAG team.  But they do not seek the blessing of a judge. Our system expects (and under the terms of the Baker decision of the Supreme Court, I would argue, obliges) members of the executive to observe Canada’s international obligations in exercising their discretion.  But we do not then submit that judgment to advance approval by a judge – indeed, it is near impossible to subject it to any form of judicial review, as many of these matters are considered non-justiciable (if they do not raise Charter issues, which as suggested above they rarely do).

CSE cyber ops are the sort of activity that would typically be considered an exercise of defence or foreign policy, and absent some statutory displacement, governed by the royal prerogative.  That is why the military could hack away and turn off lights and never need to meet a statutorily-prescribed approval regime.  But because CSE only has statutory powers (since 2001), it must look to its statute to find the power for cyber ops. Hence, C-59.  So the question is: because CSE is a statutory creature, should the once relatively unfettered powers to engage in defence and international affairs now implicate judicial pre-authorization?

This provokes additional questions: would we be best served by an IC looking at all cyber ops to establish the reasonableness of them?  If so, would the IC be empowered to assess the inevitable political dimension of the minister’s authorization – his or her judgment, for example, that the security risk posed by a malignant server justifies CSE reaching out and turning it off? Or would we craft language confining the role of the IC to indisputably legal issues? If so, would the IC be better equipped to assess Canada’s compliance with international law than the executive?  Which raises a question: then why stop with IC involvement in the cyber world? Should the artillery officer's orders also be pre-vetted by a Combat Commissioner for compliance with IHL (international humanitarian law)?

The bottom line: I am torn on this issue. I worry about giving the IC too global a role in areas of high policy where he or she would not be equipped to apply rules, but rather second guess political judgment.  For one thing: the IC then ends up wearing whatever they approve.  And if they dispute, without clear legal standards to ground that dispute, then we have a clash of responsibilities. Who should be responsible for these decisions of high policy: a minister accountable to Parliament or an appointed quasi-judicial officer?

On the other hand, if you agree that judicial pre-authorization is required for extraterritorial CSIS threat reduction (at minimum), what’s good for CSIS under threat reduction should probably also be good for CSE under cyber ops. I must say, in both cases, I wonder a lot about what a court (or the IC, if its remit is extended) would say in response to an op that violates, say, the sovereignty interest of a foreign state.  This is a whole lot of novel territory.  Which makes it interesting, but also worthy of close consideration.

I am probably missing much and wrong on other issue, but heck, it’s my blog.  This is probably one of this entries that will soon be supplemented with a lot of supplemental additions.