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Edward Snowden: Canada’s CSE Tracks Millions of Downloads

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Tuesday, March 24th, 2015


As per a report released by CBC News in association with The Intercept, Canada’s top surveillance agency CSE (Communications Security Establishment) is monitoring millions of file downloads on a daily basis. The details of the operation, also dubbed as LEVITATION, first came to light through a cache of documents released by the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. The documents clearly show that Canada is not far behind as far as the matter of surveillance is concerned and how the Canadian authorities are indulging in mass surveillance practices in the guise of searching and identifying extremists.

The methodology used by CSE to monitor file uploads and downloads is not very different from what is being used by other surveillance agencies. As per the CBC report, CSE keeps an eye on downloads occurring on popular file sharing sites by intercepting data flowing through internet cables. And if the details published by the news agencies are to be believed, the LEVITATION operation has the capability to monitor as many as 15 million downloads per day. The covert can keep track of various types of file downloads including music files, videos, photos as well as many other type of documents. The most worrying thing is that the program can not only track file downloads happening in Canada but also in America, Europe, North Africa and Middle East.

Although the aim of the LEVITATION operation was to identify extremists and terrorists plots by sifting through the documents, a secret CSE PowerPoint presentation from 2012 reveals that the agency was able to intercept only 350 documents of interest every month. This represents a minuscule 0.0001 percent of the total number of documents that the agency monitored every month. And while the agency monitored documents uploaded and downloaded on 102 different free file sharing services, only SendSpace, RapidShare and MegaUpload were mentioned in the presentation.

The report also shows how the whole operation was carried out in the background without asking for assistance from the file sharing services. The agency simply tapped into the internet cables to identify IP addresses associated with file downloads and then used those IPs to identify download patterns and even the personal accounts (Facebook and Google) of people behind those internet addresses. And while some file sharing companies like RapidShare and SendSpace have now added encryption to their services, a vast majority are still open to snooping by CSE and other security agencies.

As it can be imagined, the report has evoked strong reactions from civil liberty advocates and privacy activists. Ron Deibert, director of Canada based think tank Citizen Lab, said that the report clearly shows that operation acts like a giant X-ray machine that can keep track of each and everything associated with our digital lives. Other privacy activists like David Christopher, spokesperson for Internet advocacy group OpenMedia, asked for stringent action to restrain CSE from performing similar types of operations in the future. While it is not clear whether the LEVITATION program is still operational or whether it was able to prevent any terrorist attack, the whole operation raises serious questions about the privacy of users who did nothing to warrant such an extensive surveillance.


March 24, 2015
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