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Is CSEC, the Canadian Version of the NSA, Trustworthy?

With the whole world up in arms about the NSA's rampant surveillance of ordinary citizens, very little is known about CSEC, the Communications Security Establishment Canada, which has existed for 68 years, even though the government only acknowledged...

by Patrick McGuire
Sep 4 2013, 5:35pm

Can you keep a secret? CSEC's job recruiting video is awkwardly Canadian, while also stressing the crucial importance of CSEC secrecy.

While much of the world’s major news in 2013 has revolved around Edward Snowden’s leaks about the ultra mysterious (and now unwillingly semi-transparent) NSA, America’s #1 spy agency, little has been said about Canada’s own version of the NSA, the Communications Security Establishment Canada, also known as CSEC. In fact, so little is known about what CSEC actually does, our own federal government only began acknowledging the 68-year old agency’s existence 11 years ago.

What we do know is that CSEC is part of the Five Eyes, an intelligence cooperative (and supergroup of international BFFs) forged with the NSA in America, the GCHQ in the UK, the DSD in Australia, and the GSCB in New Zealand. These massive brain trusts of each country’s most excellent espionage enthusiasts willingly share information with each other in order to create a global net of surveillance. And as we now understand from the information Edward Snowden has leaked, the work of the NSA, which all of these other agencies are in bed with, is both highly secretive and very invasive.

While the operations of CSEC itself have been questioned here and there by the Canadian media, very little has been accomplished in terms of learning what this spy agency does. To put its size into perspective, the agency is building a 72,000 square foot headquarters in Ottawa that’s worth $880M dollars, and employs nearly 2,000 people.

As an ultra-Canadian side note, the CSEC planned on installing a hockey rink in their new building but apparently the head of their union thought that sounded dumb and scrapped the whole thing, carelessly robbing someone of the envious job title of CSEC Zamboni Operator.

Skating rink or not, the headquarters of CSEC is apparently known as the ‘Taj Mahal’ to its employees “because of its numerous amenities.” Basically, it sounds like a massive structure inhabited exclusively by Canadian spooks which takes about as much energy “as a small town.” Their ambitious and mysterious new headquarters will be fully built sometime in 2015 or 2016.

When the massive chunk of public funding to build a new HQ was first granted to CSEC, speculation and skepticism was running high in Ottawa, as no one knew what the fuck these people were doing and why they needed nearly a billion dollars to do it—plus another $5 billion thrown their way over the next 31 years.

The former chief of CSEC, John Adams, answered that cynicism bluntly: “if you were to ask the Canadian Forces if there is anyone that has saved Canadian lives in Afghanistan, they would point to us.”

It’s known that a huge part of CSEC’s job is signals interception, i.e. listening in on phone calls and emails to secretly learn about things the Canadian government wants to secretly learn about. There’s a base in Ottawa called CFS Leitrim that is simply devoted to intercepting communications—of which we are told are purely foreign conversations.


There aren't too many lunch options for the staff of CFS Leitrim.

While that’s all well and good, the Globe and Mail broke the news in June of this year that our defence minister Peter Mackay green lit a program in 2011 that would allow the government to collect telephone and internet records of Canadians it decided were suspicious. While that program was apparently scrapped, what we’ve learned from the amount of leaks in the US is that there are multiple mass surveillance projects running simultaneously, so whether there are other initiatives to spy on Canadian citizens other than the one that was scrapped is unknown.

What we do know, thanks to Edward Snowden, is that the NSA uses a program called PRISM—which Canadians should be concerned about—to spy on the internet at large. This was not the first time that knowledge of a major internet surveillance tool had been leaked to the press. In 2002, William Binney, a lesser known NSA codebreaker and intelligence analyst whistleblower, went public regarding the Trailblazer Project, a surveillance program he worked on. Most recently, news broke on Sunday that the DEA has been in bed with AT&T for decades, through a project called Project Hemisphere, that AT&T has participated in by archiving phone records on their customers’ supposedly private telephone habits since 1987.  Clearly one member of Five Eyes have a history of sneakily breaching the privacy of their citizens.

The NSA and CSEC comparisons may seem unfair, but the close bond these two agencies have through the Five Eyes group shouldn't be discounted. While the workings of the Five Eyes are fairly unknown, super-secret spy technologies are absolutely shared between countries.

When the Guardian released internal presentation materials regarding an NSA spy tool called xKeyscore, that reportedly can track “nearly everything a user does on the internet,” and judging from screenshots, appears to make warrantless digital surveillance as easy as ordering a pizza. Said screenshots were labeled with headers that unanimously read “TOPSECRET/COMINT [Communications Intelligence]/REL [Relay] to USA, AUS, CAN, GBR, NZL.” In other words, “share this top secret shit with the Five Eyes.”

So if Canada is, at the very least, in the loop on all of the latest and greatest mass social media wiretapping software, are we using it as well? And if so, are we using to spy on Canadians? Recent incidents where the Canadian government has spied on First Nations activists in the Idle No More movement would suggest that yes, somtimes we are. And this is really what freaks me out about our current surveillance state.

While most law-abiding individuals will have nothing to be personally concerned about when it comes to the government saving every copy of every email they send, the anti-dissent climate this type of Big Brother system creates is, in my opinion, astoundingly dangerous to sustaining a democratic society.

When unpopular or radical opinions, like those of environmental protesters—who some believe much of this surveillance system was designed to target—can be so easily detected and criminalized, the power for that machine to grow into a runaway freight train of bullshit imprisonments rises exponentially.

But not everybody sees it that way. To learn more about Canada’s role in the Five Eyes, I gave James Cox a call, a man who “helped oversee NATO strategic military intelligence activity throughout the Eurasian landmass” and wrote an academic primer on the Canadian surveillance state called “Canada and the Five Eyes Intelligence Community.” Mr. Cox does not believe CSEC’s closeness with the NSA is any cause for concern.

“It's my understanding that the whole story of the NSA [leaks and their surveillance machine] is a specifically American story. It is more consequential to their role in the world as a superpower, and they obviously have a lot more concerns and challenges than we have in Canada. I don't think there's any equivalent [mass surveillance] program in Canada that CSEC in running, which is the bottom-line. I don't see that happening in Canada.”

While it’s true that Canada would never want a comparably intimidating surveillance machine to the United States, we’re also a country with just over 10% of the population and a distinct lack of threatening foreign enemies. The issue is not necessarily that we would do something as crazy as America, but that we would even have some of the same tools. Plus, much like the way we rely on America’s military, could we be doing the same thing with their surveillance power? Most of our digital communications run through their country anyway.

Cox talked to me about the amount of privacy that can and should be “appropriately compromised” in order to gain the necessary information needed to protect Canada’s democracy. Comments like that always remind me of The Dark Knight, where Batman activates every microphone inside all of Gotham City’s cell phones, in order to create a giant listening device to track the Joker. Ultimately, it was a good move, because then Joker stopped blowing up hospitals. But this mass surveillance tactic, of course, requires citizens to have a lot of trust in the people who are behind the control panel, listening in. This is not Batman we’re talking about. It’s the Canadian government, and depending on how much you trust them, all of this surveillance power might sound worrisome to you.

James Cox, however, thinks there’s nothing too serious to be worried about: “In Canada, very honestly, I think our government, national institutions, and our courts are smart enough to do it right. Even so, I don't think there is much blanket surveillance of the internet or emails here in Canada as we've heard of in the program in the NSA.”

“While we are a member of the Five Eyes, that is not to say we are privy to, or partner to, all the specific national agendas of the other partners. We're not involved in every American activity around the world. We aren't involved with every Australian activity around the world. Even though we're a member, we're still a sovereign state and are quite capable of fighting for ourselves, if we're going to carry out any particular activity.”

So, while there certainly has been no news storm to suggest that CSEC is up to anything worrisome, given the examples of Idle No More spying, the defunct plan to collect internet and telephone data from Canadian citizens, and the NSA’s own awful, secret history with mass surveillance, the stage is not exactly set to trust that everything is being run smoothly and to the letter over at CSEC’s Taj Mahal.

Unfortunately there are very few avenues for discovery when it comes to CSEC itself, so unless some kind of Canadian Edward Snowden packs a bunch of crazy shit into an encrypted email attachment and sends it off to a journalist, who then might have to spend the rest of their days being detained at airports, there probably won’t be much more to talk about CSEC when it comes to their day to day spy missions. While the NDP called for an emergency debate on CSEC's actions earlier this year, ultimately there is very little oversight regarding the agency's actions. And that’s the kind of non-transparent planet we live on.

Follow Patrick on Twitter: @patrickmcguire

Previously about Canadian surveillance:

The Canadian Government Is Not Bothered by PRISM or the NSA

Canadians Should Be Concerned About the NSA and PRISM