The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) challenged the secret surveillance programs of the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) in 2013. The BCCLA accused the CSE of violating Canadians’ privacy rights through the bulk collection of communication metadata. The CSE is similar to the U.S. National Security Agency and has been involved in signals intelligence and cybersecurity since 2019.
The BCCLA’s legal battle led to changes in how Canadian spy agencies operate. This includes the creation of a new review body for public complaints and new policies about reporting individual identities. The case also resulted in the release of previously classified documents, giving greater insight into the workings and targets of Canada’s spy programs.
The CSE has often operated without proper oversight or review since its formation during the Cold War. Its spying authority was granted via secret authorizations from the Minister of National Defence. These authorizations permitted the CSE to acquire and store communications data, metadata, and other electronic information.
BCCLA’s litigation forced the government to introduce Bill C-59 in 2019, overhauling national security and intelligence operations in Canada. It brought CSE under a publicly defined mandate and established the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency for operation reviews and public complaints. Despite its broad powers, the BCCLA views this new framework as a significant improvement over past secrecy and unaccountability.