Canadian agency reported to be monitoring millions of downloads

The Communications Security Establishment tracks activity at more than 100 file-sharing sites, according to news reports

A Canadian surveillance agency is tapping into Internet cables and analyzing up to 15 million downloads from popular file-sharing websites each day, in an effort to identify political extremists, according to a news report by The Intercept and CBC News.

The Canadian Communications Security Establishment [CSE] program allows the agency to monitor downloads in several countries across North America, Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, according to the news reports, published Wednesday morning. The reports are based on leaks from Edward Snowden, the former contractor at the U.S. National Security Agency.

The CSE program, called Levitation, allows the agency to monitor downloads from popular websites used to share videos, photographs, music and other files, according to the reports. The goal of the program is to identify people downloading or uploading content connected to terrorism, such as bomb-making guides or hostage videos, the news reports said.

In the effort to identify people connected to terrorism, the CSE shifts through records of millions of downloads and uploads from Internet users not suspected of criminal activity, the reports said.

CSE's press office didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on the stories, but the agency did tell the news organizations that it is "legally authorized to collect and analyze metadata, including from parts of the Internet routinely used by terrorists." The agency's activities are not directed at Canadians, CSE said.

The news reports take their information from a mid-2012 PowerPoint presentation. In the presentation an analyst, apparently joking, says the Levitation system is sometimes overloaded with downloads of the TV series Glee. CSE finds about 350 "interesting" downloads each month, according to the presentation.

At the time, the program monitored activity on 102 file-sharing websites, including RapidShare, SendSpace and the shuttered Megaupload, the presentation said.

Privacy groups questioned CSE's activities.

"CSE is clearly spying on the private online activities of millions of innocent people, including Canadians, despite repeated government assurances to the contrary," David Christopher, communications manager of digital rights group OpenMedia.ca, said on the group's website. "Law-abiding Internet users who use popular file hosting services are now finding themselves under the government's microscope."

With Canadian IP addresses among those targeted, "this amounts to spying on the private information of innocent Canadians, at any time, without a warrant," he added. "This alarming development underlines the need for robust action to rein in CSE's reckless and out of control spying activities."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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Tags governmentsecurityprivacyinternetU.S. National Security AgencymegauploadEdward SnowdenRapidshareCommunications Security EstablishmentSendSpaceDavid ChristopherOpenMedia.ca

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Grant Gross

IDG News Service
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