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NSA reportedly helped Canada spy on airport passengers using free Wi-Fi

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Wi-Fi logo (STOCK)
Wi-Fi logo (STOCK)

Canada’s electronic spy agency has allegedly been using airport Wi-Fi to spy on its citizens. CBC News reports that the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) collected data over a two-week period from free Wi-Fi hotspots at what it describes as a “major Canadian airport.” While it’s unclear what data was obtained, CBC News claims it could be used to “track the wireless devices of thousands of ordinary airline passengers for days after they left the terminal.”

Metadata collected from airport Wi-Fi systems over a two-week period

The bold claim isn’t backed up with any technical details on the work of the CSEC, but it appears that the spy agency collected metadata from the free Wi-Fi hotspots. CBC News notes that a “special source” may have voluntarily provided access to wireless data from airport Wi-Fi systems. CSEC chief John Forster previously claimed that the agency doesn’t “target Canadians at home or abroad in our foreign intelligence activities, nor do we target anyone in Canada.” However, it’s clear that any metadata collection from an airport on Canadian soil would likely target Canadians. CSEC has confirmed to CBC News that it’s “legally authorized to collect and analyze metadata," but it claims "no Canadian or foreign travellers' movements were 'tracked.'"

How CSEC allegedly tracks wireless devices days after passengers leave Canadian airport terminals is unclear. While metadata collection would likely provide the unique mac address identifier for any electronics connecting to Wi-Fi access points, it’s unlikely that CSEC could track devices like laptops and notebooks for days unless they were connected to additional cellular or Wi-Fi networks during that time. The agency would also need access to those networks outside of the airport Wi-Fi to obtain the necessary metadata for tracking purposes.

CBC News also reports that the two-week data collection was a trial run for new software that the CSEC was developing with assistance from the NSA. The software is reportedly fully operational now, following the trial back in 2012. Although the trial airport in question is not named, the two largest Canadian airports, Toronto and Vancouver, both deny authorizing the spy operation. “It is really unbelievable that CSEC would engage in that kind of surveillance of Canadians,” says Ontario's privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian. "I mean that could have been me at the airport walking around… this resembles the activities of a totalitarian state, not a free and open society."