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Canadian spookhaus says airport Wi-Fi slurp didn't invade privacy

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The chief of the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), which has been accused of slurping airport Wi-Fi traffic in a story aired on CBC, has denied wrongdoing to a Canadian Senate committee.

As part of the never-ending drip-feed of spook secrets served up by Edward Snowden, CBC News alleged that CSEC used airport Wi-Fi to identify individuals passing through, which it then tracked “for days”.

At the time, CSEC said it was allowed to collect metadata, but also said its surveillance didn't include Canadians. However, the allegations were serious enough to attract the attention of that country's Senate national defence committee (NDC).

According Canada's The Globe and Mail, the prime minister's national security advisor told the committee that he was “not totally persuaded” that CSEC had “tapped into airport Wi-Fi”.

Rather, Rigby said, the agency had only collected metadata, which he described as “legal and appropriate” because all that was collected was “data about data”.

CSEC chief John Forster, who also appeared before the committee, also defended this use of metadata, while at the same time confirming what experts have been saying for years: that an extraordinary amount can be learned without knowing the content of a communication.

CBC reports that Forster said CSEC had created a model showing that the agency could “track a user's network activity” when using a public connection.

Rather than a tracking exercise, Forster said CSEC slurped the Wi-Fi metadata as an R&D project. CBC quotes Forster as saying “We weren't targeting or trying to find anyone or monitoring individuals' movements in real time. The purpose of it was to build an analytical model of typical patterns of network activity around a public access mode*.”

[*The Register is almost certain that this is a mis-transcription, and the word Forster used is “node”.]

The information wasn't used in real time, Forster said, but rather was analysed later to produce the model. The aim of the model, he told the committee, is to identify the signatures of Wi-Fi hotspots.

Whether or not those reassurances settle those who believe their privacy has been invaded is another thing. ®

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