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The New Digital DEW Line

The potential reach of these agencies into our personal lives might leave Canadians wondering whether online privacy is obsolete, argue Steven Staples and Matthew Tomlinson.

By: /
22 October, 2013
By: Mathew Tomlinson
Mathew Tomlinson is a graduate of the University of Waterloo Legal Studies and Peace and Conflict Studies programs.
By: Steven Staples
Steven Staples is the president of the Rideau Institute.

Canada’s chief of defence staff, General Tom Lawson, paid a visit to his old stomping grounds at NORAD headquarters this month. In a release, NORAD said he was there “to gain additional insight into and appreciation of the commands’ unique missions, capabilities and advancement in the previous year and understand critical issues facing NORAD and USNORTHCOM in today’s security environment.”

Of course, General Lawson knows NORAD well, since he was the top Canadian soldier at the joint Canada-United States command for a year before being appointed Canada’s top general last summer.

No need to brief him on the fact that for more than 50 years NORAD has used its rings of radar installations across the Arctic and satellites to watch for enemy attacks against North America by waves of Soviet bombers or civilization-ending nuclear strikes from thousands of missiles crossing through space on their way to obliterate American (and Canadian) cities.

He also likely knows that this mission is looking as outdated as those rusting DEW Line/North Warning System radar stations.

The threat posed by nuclear weapons has not disappeared, but in the post-9/11 era attacks are more likely to come from terrorist plots aimed at striking deadly high-profile targets in North America, whether it is by hijacking aircraft, constructing crude bombs, or hacking sensitive computers controlling critical infrastructure—like, say, a nuclear power station.

In the last decade governments have developed a largely unheard of ability to intercept, monitor and track what happens within the cyber domain, the online equivalent of the aerospace domain monitored for all those decades by NORAD.  

The recent revelations from whistle-blower Edward Snowden have provided everyone with a glimpse of how powerful these monitoring missions and technologies have become.

According to Brigadier-General James Cox (Retired), writing for the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, a group with a close relationship to the Department of National Defence, “In the post 9/11 era cyber security concerns have pushed this mission to new heights of interest.” As a result, a group of five allies comprising Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States have developed an unprecedented ability to monitor, and take action within the digital realm.  

“Cyberspace is now an accepted domain of warfare and Five Eyes sigint [signals intelligence] agencies are the principal ‘warfighters’, engaged in a simmering campaign of cyber defence against persistent transnational cyber threats,” said General Cox, whose career included overseeing NATO’s intelligence activities in the 1990s.

What’s remarkable is that, with hardly anyone noticing, the national security establishments of Canada and the United States have erected a new digital DEW line around, and within, North America.

John Forster, chief of Communications Security Establishment Canada, explained to a committee of senators that “threat actors targeting Canada are increasingly using the Internet as a medium of choice, and threat actors online range in sophistication from the amateur and the curious, to organized criminals, to foreign states that can and do use the Internet for a wide variety of malicious purposes.”

He added, “the demand for information in the government is growing, both getting it and protecting it, and it is our mission to do both. Information is our business. We continue to gather intelligence to help decision makers safeguard Canadians and promote Canadian interests, while at the same time protecting information entrusted to government from cyber threats.”

Senator Grant Mitchell, attending that meeting, remarked, “you start to imagine a new Cold War era where you have mutual virtual deterrents, because they are afraid of what we could do to their cyber configuration as much as we are afraid of what they could do to ours.”

Recent media revelations from the information provided by Edward Snowden have awakened Canadians to organizations like CSEC and its links to the much larger and more ominous US National Security Agency. The potential reach of these agencies into our personal lives through our online activities might leave Canadians wondering whether online privacy is obsolete while North American security agencies are out there fighting a neo Cold War over the Internet.

For decades NORAD kept watch for targets over the distant horizon, but today government surveillance has the potential to reach right into North American homes and personal mobile devices—nothing seems off limits. The target is us.

To some, the tradeoff between personal privacy and domestic security is worth it, but what is evident is that the government’s online surveillance powers have developed far beyond what was understood previously. It is crucial that democratic decision makers ensure that in the name of national security, not one more email is read than is absolutely necessary.

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