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Payout warranted for spying: rights advocates

VANCOUVER - Anyone who has used a cellphone, smartphone, laptop or tablet in Canada over the past 13 years deserves payment or other remedies for potentially having their privacy rights violated, says a proposed class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court.

A Vancouver-based civil rights group is suing Canada's national electronic spy agency on behalf of anyone who used a wireless device in the country since 2001.

The suit targets Communications Security Establishment Canada, or CSEC, which the association claims has been violating the constitutional rights of millions of Canadians.

"It's certainly a large class of people, that's for sure, but we also can't be entirely sure who in Canada, which specific people have been targeted by this kind of electronic spying," said Josh Paterson, B.C. Civil Liberties Association executive director.

"If this injustice has been committed ... there does need to be some kind of remedy."

The association filed the lawsuit as a companion to an earlier legal action it began in October. The primary suit aims to have laws struck down that the group claims allows CSEC to read emails, text messages and listen to calls with people outside Canada.

Such legislation violates Canadians' Charter Rights, the group argues, by infringing on privacy.

Money, the funding of educational programming or any other tangible fixes should be considered as a potential remedy if the first court case is proven, Paterson said.

"Really, it's up to the courts to decide, it could include money," he said, noting history shows a host of other examples. "There's actually quite a lot of scope to what it could be."

But Paterson suggested specifics of the redress are less important than the lawsuit's key intention of ensuring that Canadians' constitutional rights are protected.

Although CSEC is not allowed to intentionally collect or analyze communications information from its citizens, the federal defence minister can give written authorization for unintentional interception. The provision for collecting foreign-signals intelligence falls under the National Defence Act.

The class action uses 2001 as its baseline because in December of that year, just months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City, Canada changed the anti-terrorism laws to which the group now objects.

The class action must be approved by the federal court before it can proceed.

CSEC, on the other hand, maintains that its activities are legal.

"CSE's activities are reviewed by the independent CSE Commissioner who has never found CSE to have acted unlawfully," wrote CSEC spokesman Ryan Foreman in an email. "In fact, he has specifically noted CSE's culture of lawful compliance and genuine concern for protecting the privacy of Canadians."

"Under the law, this organization is prohibited from targeting Canadians," the organization said in a previous statement.

The federal government has faced pressure to provide details about CSEC's spying activities following debate over electronic privacy that's been a hot issue south of the border.

The legal action resembles other cases by rights advocates in the United States launched after revelations of mass spying activity there by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

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