Canada's National Defence Minister Peter MacKay speaks during Question Period on Parliament Hill in Ottawa June 10, 2013.
OTTAWA - Defence Minister Peter MacKay says Canada's eavesdropping spy force isn't snooping on Canadians.
MacKay was forced to defend the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) Monday when it was revealed he signed off on the agency's metadata mining program in 2011.
The program was first implemented in 2005 under the Liberals but was suspended over concerns raised by the CSEC watchdog.
MacKay said CSEC's activities are directed outside the country and Canadians aren't being targeted.
"Metadata is collected only on international, not domestic communications," MacKay said during question period.
"It is only targeting foreign threats unless, of course, there is a request from an accompanying department under warrant."
CSEC operates under National Defence and gathers intelligence by intercepting telecommunications signals.
There are few details related to CSEC's metadata program, but a similar program making headlines in the United States collects information such as time, duration and location - but not content - on domestic phone calls and e-mails.
CSEC is prevented from targeting Canadians under current laws.
NDP defence critic Jack Harris says Canadians deserve to know more about the spy outfit's activities and whether it does sometimes collect domestic data.
Harris also questioned whether CSEC's American counterpart - the National Security Agency (NSA) - shares information it may have gathered on Canadians with the agency.
CSEC and NSA are two of the "Five Eyes" of the global communication surveillance system, along with the U.K., Australia and New Zealand.
"What we want to know is MacKay pushing the envelope here? Is he doing an end run around the legislation in this new way?" Harris said.
The 2010-11 annual report from the commissioner that oversees CSEC said the spy outfit made "significant changes" to the program since it was suspended but would continue to monitor its activities.
The federal privacy watchdog will also take a closer look at the agency's programme.
"When it comes to the CSEC's metadata program, we know very little specific information at this point, but we want to find out more," said Scott Hutchison, a spokesman for the federal privacy commissioner.
Michel Juneau-Katsuya, a former senior intelligence officer at CSIS, called outfits like the NSA and CSEC a "necessary evil" that can help protect citizens but must be closely monitored.
"That's what this debate is all about. How far do we want the government to go in protecting us?" he said.
"It's the infinite delicate balance in a democratic system."