The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS, pronounced “see-sis”) is Canada’s spy agency. CSIS is not a police agency like the RCMP – its officers have no power to arrest or detain and do not enforce the Criminal Code or other laws.
CSIS was created in 1984 by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act, (1) which gives it the power to investigate, collect, analyse and retain information and intelligence about activities that are suspected of being a threat to Canada, and to report to and advise the government of Canada and provide security assessments to departments of government. It collects intelligence information and conducts open and covert (secret) investigations and operations within Canada and abroad.
In carrying out its mandate, CSIS gathers information from many sources, including security intelligence agencies in other countries, federal and provincial governments, the RCMP and local police, secret informants and publicly available sources. CSIS also gathers information secretly, through surveillance techniques. Some forms of surveillance require CSIS to get a warrant from a judge of the Federal Court of Canada (including intercepting communications by wiretapping, eavesdropping and intercepting mail).
The applications for these warrants are approved by the Minister of Public Safety before being given to the judge. (2) The applications to the judge are made ex parte – meaning that the person who is to be under surveillance is not told about the application for the warrant and not entitled to appear at the application hearing.
CSIS may also interview individuals who CSIS believes may have information of interest and sometimes do this by making unannounced visits to their homes. In 2008, BCCLA received reports of CSIS and RCMP intelligence officers visiting the homes of people who are outspoken in the media on Olympic issues or associated with protest groups. It was also reported to the BCCLA that CSIS officers stopped individuals at Vancouver City Council meetings who were speaking against the Olympics.
If You Are Approached by CSIS
You do not have to answer questions asked by a CSIS agent. If you do not wish to speak with a CSIS agent, simply politely decline to do so. The agent has no power to arrest you or to take you anywhere for questioning.
If the agent insists or threatens to approach you publicly at your place of work or school, you should consult a lawyer.
If the CSIS agent is accompanied by an RCMP officer and the RCMP officer threatens to arrest you or take you for questioning, or does arrest you or detains you for questioning, you should immediately ask to speak to a lawyer and politely tell them you do not want to answer any questions until you have spoken to a lawyer.
You have the right to remain silent and not answer any questions even if they question you persistently. Police have the power to keep asking you questions even if you say you do not want to answer. (3) It is best to simply continue to say you do not want to talk until you have spoken to your lawyer.
You May Not Get Access to Your Personal Information Held by CSIS
You have a right to request access to your personal information held by CSIS. However, if you make a request for access to personal information under the Privacy Act, CSIS can refuse to give you access (4) and can refuse to confirm or deny whether the information exists. (5)
Although you can appeal to the Privacy Commissioner of Canada about a decision of CSIS to refuse access or refuse to confirm or deny the existence of information, the Privacy Commissioner has no power to order CSIS to give you the information.
How to Make a Complaint About CSIS
You can complain to the Director of CSIS and then if you are not satisfied you may complain to the Canadian Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) which is responsible for overseeing CSIS.
You must write a letter of complaint to the Director of CSIS first, before you complain to SIRC.
Security Screening and Security Clearances by CSIS
Prior to getting a security clearance, the security screening process involves reliability checks to determine the trustworthiness and suitability of a potential federal employee. This process, which usually involves reference checks, verification of qualifications and, often, credit and criminal history checks, determines whether or not an individual receives Basic Reliability or Enhanced Reliability status. CSIS does not do this screening.