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The Guy Who Oversees Canada’s Cyberspy Agency Is Cash-Strapped and Worried

The Commissioner for the Communications Security Establishment says he's concerned he doesn't have the resources to oversee Canada's NSA.

by Justin Ling
Apr 2 2015, 2:45pm

A meeting room at CSE's new office. Is this where they read our emails? Who can say? Photo via Government of Canada

The Honourable Jean-Pierre Plouffe is worried he won't have the resources to keep tabs on Canada's rapidly growing spy behemoth.

Plouffe is the overseer for the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), a secretive agency that runs Canada's signal intelligence work. As an integral part of the Five Eyes—the shadowy intelligence-sharing consortium involving Canada, America, New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom—CSE is basically sidekick to the American NSA.

Financial reports released on Tuesday show the commissioner is going to have to cut back his review processes due to lack of funds. Meanwhile, CSE's budget is larger than ever.

Motherboard has reported thoroughly on CSE's extensive powers, with help from leaks released by Edward Snowden.

Plouffe, as the CSE Commissioner, is responsible for making sure that the agency does not go outside its mandate. Currently, the agency is forbidden from intentionally collecting Canadians' data, unless it is doing so under the authority of another Canadian agency. However, Snowden's documents as well as Plouffe's own investigations show that CSE does end up with files on Canadians. When that happens, CSE is supposed to delete them. They don't always do so in a timely manner.

Yet, documents also show that CSE was scooping up Canadians' data as they logged onto a WIFI hotspot in some airport in Canada. Plouffe ultimately cleared the spy agency of wrongdoing in that operation.

Concerns remain, however, that CSE is going well outside its mandate. But, as VICE reported in February, the Harper government isn't worried.

"The CSE Commissioner's report indicates that they have been operating inside the law," Justice Minister Peter MacKay told VICE.

The commissioner, however, doesn't have the power to compel information from CSE.

"The office has no authority to enforce specific actions by CSE," reads the commissioner's financial reports from this year. "Cooperation, collaboration and professional respect between the office and CSE is essential to my office for the conduct of rigorous review and for the formulation of meaningful recommendations for change, where needed, and essential to CSE for the timely and appropriate implementation of corrective action."

But even the commissioner's power—which is largely based on the honour system—might be further at risk.

In a financial report tabled on Tuesday, Plouffe warned that "Without this positive relationship being in place, the review process will flounder and opportunities for positive change will be lost."

He said the review process was already at risk, thanks to a lack of funds in his office.

"Cost sharing related to central agency initiatives and fiscal restraint measures are reducing the flexibility of the office's available funding. CSE, however, is growing and its activities are changing in response to its changing environment," Plouffe's office wrote.

The commissioner begged the federal government for more money. He's not the only one. As VICE reported on Tuesday, Canada's Access to Information Commissioner is also cash-starved, and she says it will hobble her ability to pry documents from resistant government departments. And as Toronto Star reporter Alex Boutillier reported in Wednesday's paper, the review body for Canada's other spy agency, CSIS, is already seeing its operations impacted by a lack of resources.

The commissioner's office has a budget of just over $2 million, which has been pretty much flat for years. CSE's budget, meanwhile, tops out around $829 million. The commissioner's office has a full-time staff of 11, in addition to Plouffe, who works part-time.

The lack of money means that CSE needs to cut back on its review process and "focus review resources on CSE activities that pose the greatest risks to non-compliance and/or privacy."

As Plouffe may be considering bake sales and silent auctions to keep the lights on, the Conservatives have spent months boasting of Canada's world-renowned intelligence oversight agencies as they defend their controversial anti-terror bill, C-51.

That legislation would vastly expand CSE's ability to receive information on Canadians, and to share it among allies.

Speaking before a committee on Monday, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney said Canada's intelligence review bodies were "the envy of the world."

VICE got a chance to ask Associate Defence Minister Julian Fantino about the recent revelations about CSE—he is, after all, now responsible for the organization—and he was unconcerned.

"First and foremost, we don't talk about operational matters and certainly I'm not going to do that," Fantino began. "Having said that, I can say that CSE operates within the parameters of the law, well established and well supervised. Accountability is there."

VICE asked about documents showing that CSE is using its capabilities to attack foreign networks. Fantino wouldn't comment.

"If you won't comment, how can Canadians have faith in what CSE is doing?" VICE asked.

"You weren't listening. I just did," Fantino said before he walked away.

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