Canada’s Cyber Conundrum

The internationalization of cyber espionage means CSEC not only has to satisfy the hunger of Canadian government departments, but is also under pressure from foreign reciprocating agencies, argues Charles Burton.

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22 October, 2013
By: Charles Burton

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he was “very concerned” about reports that Canada’s electronic spy agency, Communications Security Establishment Canada, was conducting industrial espionage in Brazil.

Mr. Harper says he will checking to see if CSEC has been acting within the law, and presumably will get back to us on that “soon.”

These days, CSEC is a thriving priority within the Department of National Defence. Cyber spying is clearly a must-have skill in the Internet age, and it doesn’t come cheap. Ottawa’s much-trumpeted austerity be damned, CSEC is moving into a new $880 million state-of-the-art intelligence complex next year, and its new super computers reportedly consume enough electricity to power every light in Ottawa.

It takes a lot of fuel to suck up all of that data from Brazil and presumably well nigh everywhere else throughout the world.

Of course, with all of this capacity to snoop, a question begs: How much private information about Canadians in Canada is being screened by these super high-tech energy guzzlers that work in the service of CSEC’s 1,800 employees?

Modern cyber spying is far removed from the spycraft of yore, which was eagerly depicted in my 1960s childhood copy of Stirring Stories for Boys: intercepting and steaming open envelopes, tapping telephone lines with a screwdriver and copper cable, using skeleton keys to sneak into foreign offices with spy cameras to photograph documents onto microfilm, and so on.

By the early 1980s, Washington pigeons with tiny transmitters attached to their legs were being induced to roost on the Soviet embassy’s windowsills, in hopes of picking up secret conversations inside. (I wonder if they ever did?) And how I admired those clever math boffins who cracked messages written in so-called unbreakable codes—the frisson of information illicitly obtained.

In the Cold War period, Canada, Britain and the United States shared technology for encrypting military and diplomatic communications. The deal was that they would not spy on each other, but no one was too surprised when the content of coded cables between Ottawa and its high commission in London—about strategy to induce the British government to repatriate the Canadian Constitution—came up in question period in the British House of Commons in 1980.

Evidently there is still not a lot of honour among spies. This year’s case of Jeffery Delisle, sentenced to 20 years for passing secrets to the Russians when he was a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Navy, reveals the complicated position of CSEC vis-a-vis its sister spy agencies in allied nations.

The documents in question were downloaded by Delisle from the STONEGHOST database of intelligence shared between Canada, the United States, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. In his defence, Delisle said “it was never really Canadian stuff…there was American stuff, there was some British stuff, Australian stuff—it was everybody’s stuff.”

This internationalization of cyber espionage means CSEC not only has to satisfy the hunger of Canadian government departments, including Finance, for purloined data, but is also under pressure from foreign reciprocating agencies to supply its fair share of high quality cyber info to justify Canada’s continuing role in the international consortium.

How worried should we be?  

At least in Canada, classified information stays largely inside government, as the number of people outside government with security clearances is restricted. But there are many more non-Canadians in the US, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, and to a lesser extent in other friendly nations with whom we exchange intelligence, who have access to this data—not to speak of the Julian Assanges and Edward Snowdens who see their life’s mission as outing the digitized secrets of others.

Defenders of CSEC’s spy programs point to the CSEC commissioner, a retired judge with a staff of six, as the mechanism to ensure that CSEC does not overreach its mandate and intentionally or inadvertently violate Canadians’ Charter rights to privacy and freedom from unwarranted intrusion of government. How effective the commissioner’s office as currently structured can be in fulfilling this mandate is difficult to ascertain. It is necessarily a process obscured by tight secrecy.

Most Canadians would support stronger oversight of the intelligence-gathering agencies who collect massive quantities of our digital data in amounts growing exponentially as the years go by. But whether there is the political will in Ottawa to bring this about, especially as it has implications for our relations with the much larger cyber espionage agencies in the US and UK that we share data with, remains to be seen.

Twenty-nine years after 1984, George Orwell must be rolling in his grave.

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