The COVID-19 pandemic has created new vulnerabilities to be exploited by highly-capable state actors seeking to further their strategic interests to Canada’s detriment. The online environment, more than ever, provides fertile ground for radicalization, recruitment and communication by a host of Ideologically- and Religiously-Motivated Violent Extremists. In the past year, CSIS has been forced to pivot its operational stance to respond to emerging and changing threats, while faced with many of the same restrictions felt by all Canadians.
CSIS’s ability to respond nimbly to these dynamic threats, however, is limited by its authorities under the CSIS Act. There is ongoing public debate regarding the implications of privacy in the smart phone era. Canada’s legal landscape as it relates to privacy and technology continues to evolve. This directly influences CSIS operations, including the way information is collected and when a warrant must be sought.
The world operates in a data-rich environment, which presents both significant opportunities, but also challenges under the current legislative framework. By necessity and according to its mandate, CSIS information is held in silos to manage privacy requirements – limiting data analytics, a potentially powerful tool to advance investigations.
The CSIS Act was enacted in 1984 and can present interpretive challenges today, which can have practical implications on daily investigative activities. For example, prohibitions on disclosing classified information limit how CSIS can support entities outside of Government – including municipalities, universities and critical infrastructure – that face significant national security threats. CSIS is considering the implications of the strictly necessary limitation of CSIS’s core collection mandate on its activities in the online threat environment.
More work remains to be done to ensure CSIS has the right authorities and tools to be a modern intelligence agency and fulfill its mandate, which will include consideration of the conclusions and recommendations of review bodies, findings of internal reviews and Federal Court decisions. CSIS is learning from allied experiences, as these challenges are not Canada’s alone. For example, both Australia and New Zealand have recently concluded major intelligence reviews that provide valuable insights for Canada. CSIS will continue to work closely with Government of Canada partners both within the Public Safety Portfolio and with the Department of Justice to ensure that CSIS can act effectively to protect national security while meeting its legal obligations and respecting the rights of Canadians.
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