Revealed: Canadian Spy Program Illustrates “Giant X‑Ray Machine Over All Our Digital Lives”

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Lat­est rev­e­la­tion from Snow­den archive shows CSE has been mon­i­tor­ing, ana­lyz­ing, and track­ing mil­lions of peo­ple who uti­lize pop­u­lar file-shar­ing websites

Rapidshare was one of three file-sharing websites targeted in the spy agency's surveillance. (Photo: Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Rapid­share was one of three file-shar­ing web­sites tar­get­ed in the spy agen­cy’s sur­veil­lance. (Pho­to: Evan Mitsui/CBC)

New­ly released doc­u­ments con­tained in the archive of mate­ri­als leaked to jour­nal­ists by NSA whistle­blow­er Edward Snow­den reveals that Canada’s spy agency, the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Secu­ri­ty Estab­lish­ment, has been oper­at­ing a covert, mass sur­veil­lance pro­gram designed to mon­i­tor the down­loads of mil­lions of Inter­net users around the world.

Report­ed joint­ly by The Inter­cept and the CBC on Wednes­day, the rev­e­la­tions cen­ter on a slide pre­sen­ta­tion detail­ing a CSE pro­gram called LEVITATION which secret­ly “taps into Inter­net cables and ana­lyzes records of up to 15 mil­lion down­loads dai­ly from pop­u­lar web­sites com­mon­ly used to share videos, pho­tographs, music, and oth­er files.”

Accord­ing to the CBC:

The pre­sen­ta­tion pro­vides a rare glimpse into Canada’s cyber-sleuthing capa­bil­i­ties and its use of its spy part­ners’ immense data­bas­es to track the online traf­fic of mil­lions of peo­ple around the world, includ­ing Canadians.

That glimpse may be of even greater inter­est now that the Harp­er gov­ern­ment plans to intro­duce new leg­is­la­tion increas­ing the pow­ers of Canada’s secu­ri­ty agen­cies.

Though Canada’s always been described as a junior part­ner in the Five Eyes spy­ing part­ner­ship, which includes the U.S., Britain, New Zealand and Aus­tralia, this doc­u­ment shows it led the way in devel­op­ing this new extrem­ist-track­ing tool.

Asked for his assess­ment of the sur­veil­lance pro­gram by The Inter­cep­t’s Ryan Gal­lagher and Glenn Green­wald, Ron Deib­ert, direc­tor of Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to-based Inter­net secu­ri­ty think tank Cit­i­zen Lab, said LEVITATION illus­trates just how pow­er­ful the world’s intel­li­gence agen­cies have become and described their myr­i­ad spy tools as a “giant X‑ray machine over all our dig­i­tal lives.”

After review­ing the details of the pro­gram, Deib­ert said, “Every sin­gle thing that you do – in this case uploading/downloading files to these sites – that act is being archived, col­lect­ed and analyzed.”

CBC’s report­ing describes how the CSE was able to use their tech­nol­o­gy “to access data from 102 free file upload sites, though only three file-host com­pa­nies are named: Send­space, Rapid­share and the now-defunct Megaupload.”

Accord­ing to The Inter­cept:

The osten­si­ble aim of the sur­veil­lance is to sift through vast amounts of data to iden­ti­fy peo­ple upload­ing or down­load­ing con­tent that could be con­nect­ed to ter­ror­ism – such as bomb-mak­ing guides and hostage videos.

In the process, how­ev­er, CSE combs through huge vol­umes of data show­ing uploads and down­loads ini­ti­at­ed by Inter­net users not sus­pect­ed of any wrongdoing.

In a top-secret Pow­er­Point pre­sen­ta­tion, dat­ed from mid-2012, an ana­lyst from the agency jokes about how, while hunt­ing for extrem­ists, the LEVITATION sys­tem gets clogged with infor­ma­tion on innocu­ous down­loads of the musi­cal TV series Glee.

CSE finds some 350 “inter­est­ing” down­loads each month, the pre­sen­ta­tion notes, a num­ber that amounts to less than 0.0001 per cent of the total col­lect­ed data.

Com­ment­ing with­in CBC’s report­ing, Green­wald said an impor­tant thing to note about this lat­est rev­e­la­tion, espe­cial­ly for Cana­di­ans, is that “it’s real­ly the first time that a sto­ry has been report­ed that involves [CSE] as the lead agency in a pro­gram of pure mass surveillance.”

Beg­ging fur­ther ques­tions, Tamir Israel, a lawyer with the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ottawa’s Cana­di­an Inter­net Pol­i­cy and Pub­lic Inter­est Clin­ic, spec­u­lat­ed about what the LEVITATION pro­gram says about oth­er CSE oper­a­tions which remain in the dark.  “The spe­cif­ic uses that they talk about in this con­text may not be the prob­lem,” he told the CBC, “but it’s what else they can do.”