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If the antics of Toronto mayor Rob Ford weren’t enough, a new report about spying on airline passengers raises questions about whether Canadians fully deserve their reputations as the most trustworthy and polite people on the planet.

On Thursday, CBC News reported that a secret document revealed by Edward Snowden shows a free wireless service at an unidentified major Canadian airport was used over a two-week period by the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) spy agency to track wireless devices of thousands of airline passengers – and continue tracking them even after they left the terminal. In fact, the agency collected enough data to determine where the tracked travelers had been before they entered the terminal.

The document has some indications that the CSEC was using the data capture as a test of new software being developed with the U.S. National Security Agency.

Does it matter?


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CBC cites a cyber-security expert, Ronald Deibert, who said he couldn’t “see any circumstances in which this would not be unlawful,” under Canadian law or CSEC’s mandates. The CSEC is prohibited from collecting intelligence on Canadians or anyone in that country without a court’s permission.

The CSEC said in a statement that it “is legally authorized to collect and analyze metadata” in order to “collect foreign signals intelligence to protect Canada.” Another CSEC spokesperson told the Toronto Star that the document is simply “a technical presentation between specialists exploring mathematical models.”

As with the NSA, the CSEC contends that it was capturing metadata and not the actual content of conversations. But does it matter?

A Southern California lawyer blogging under the pseudonym of Burt Likko noted in a posting last summer that he’s “less uncomfortable with the NSA using search algorithms that actually probe the content of communications than I am them conducting all this complex analysis of communications metadata,” because looking for content “has some kind of targeting to it.”

Ye olde metadata

Like textual content on a website, conversational content in a phone call is only part of the analytical gold. But as Likko points out, at least content offers a visible reason. Metadata, on the other hand, is a map to many destinations, most of which are unknown at the start.

Kieran Healy, an associate professor in sociology at Duke University, attempted a thought experiment to find out if metadata could have impacted the kind of people who went on to write the Fourth Amendment that prohibits “unreasonable search and seizure.”

Writing as a Loyalist in 1772 London, he mathematically analyzes overlapping membership metadata from various suspected organizations in the American colonies to reveal the social network of 256 social active Bostonians.

The trail eventually leads him to “the name of a traitor” — Paul Revere.

All of this, he said, is possible “from the merest sliver of metadata about a single modality of relationship between people.”

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