A new report in The Intercept revealed that CSEC, Canada's NSA, spies on Israel's enemies. But what does that entail? And is it within CSEC's mandate to do so?
CFS Leitrim, a known site for CSEC activities in Ottawa. via Wikipedia.
Earlier this month, Glenn Greenwald published a story on The Intercept called “Cash, Weapons and Surveillance: the U.S. is a Key Party to Every Israeli Attack,” but in the course of reporting on how America provides relief in the form of greenbacks, guns, and spying to the Israelis during their military campaigns—there’s mentions of Canada’s own surveillance agency, CSEC, scattered throughout his story.
Obviously, this indicates that when Israel heads into battle, there’s at the very least, some sort of intelligence from Canadian cyberspies assisting it to develop its military strategies. This was likely a new revelation to any Canadian who read the piece, but it didn’t receive much scrutiny or publication in the media, other than a small post on Lux Ex Umbra, a detailed blog for people interested in “monitoring Canadian signals intelligence (SIGNIT) activities past and present.”
Lux Ex Umbra recently made headlines for decoding part of the infamous, leaked CSEC presentation implicating CSEC in spying on Canadians through free airport WiFi, which the CBC first reported on earlier this year. The various leaked slides have been continuously analyzed ever since, due to the immense complexity of the materials.
In Greenwald’s piece about Israel, however—which is based off of leaked documents from Edward Snowden—cooperation between the NSA, CSEC, and Israel’s spy agency, INSU, is clearly outlined: “In many cases, the NSA and ISNU work cooperatively with the British and Canadian spy agencies, the GCHQ and CSEC.” The article goes on to say that GCHQ and CSEC “actively participate in feeding the Israelis selected communications data they have collected.”
Putting aside for a moment the moral and political outrage Israel is generating since their one-sided conflict against Hamas in Gaza began, this level of cooperation between surveillance agencies opens up major questions about whether or not it’s within CSEC’s mandate to be conducting such operations, and what those operations entail in the first place.
I reached out to Chris Parsons, a prominent cybersecurity and surveillance researcher from Toronto’s Citizen Lab, to discuss CSEC’s role in Israel’s military offensives. He told me there are “at least two ways” that CSEC would be involved in helping out Israel. One of which would be to provide INSU with a tracking program, or specific databases, to help spy on targets and persons of interest, which would have been developed by CSEC. As we learned from the free airport WiFi presentation, which was more about tracking targets as they log into various WiFi access points around the world than it was about surveilling airport travelers in particular, CSEC does have these capabilities in their wheelhouse.
Parsons went on to say that CSEC could also assist Israel by “providing some sort of expertise with how to use databases that are shared out to the Israeli intelligence community.” Simply put, Canada may be giving the Israelis tech support for the spying systems we’re giving them.
In terms of whether or not this kind of assistance is within CSEC’s mandate, Parsons told me: “As you’re aware, the Canadian government has identified Hamas as a terrorist organization and as such, it would make sense for CSEC to be engaged in the monitoring of their locations and their electronic systems that Hamas is believed to be using. So in that sense, it should fit within CSEC’s mandated intelligence-gathering.”
But even with Hamas on a designated terror list, the complexities surrounding our Canadian surveillance agency spying on Palestinian targets opens up major issues of privacy; specifically when you consider how a target is selected, and how sure government powers need to be before a person is added to a list of terrorists. As Parsons told me, there is the “very serious question of how exactly individuals are identified as valid targets or not… How many individuals are swept up into the monitoring?”
Given what we already know about Afghanistan, i.e. that the NSA records all of the phone calls made within that country, it seems highly unlikely that with at least four spy agencies targeting Palestine, only the so-called bad guys are getting caught up in the dragnet. We have also learned about the NSA providing Israel with surveillance information that was not properly scrubbed beforehand, meaning American conversations between civilians, which were caught up in the NSA’s spying operation, were handed over to Israel without redaction.
This of course comes back to the problem of who is a target, and who isn’t. Parsons discussed how particularly difficult this problem is for the Hamas conflict. Because Hamas is a government, it has government employees who aren’t active fighters or militants. This would make targeting Hamas members tricky, and could potentially result in unnecessary surveillance.
Parsons did note, however, that a “pervasive surveillance operation” could lead to more precise military operations. He was unsure if this were particularly true in the case of Gaza, but indicated that it’s likely how a sweeping dragnet would be defended.
That said, with so much information being gathered by surveillance agencies the world over, and with such moral ambiguity surrounding this year’s Gaza conflict, it’s hard to say whether or not CSEC is helping Israel minimize civilian deaths by helping to produce more precise strikes. If international intelligence agencies are supposedly helping Israel in their pinpointing of targets, how did we end up with so many civilian casualties in Gaza?
Whatever Canada’s role in supplying signals intelligence to the Israelis actually is, we do know diplomatically the Harper government has positioned itself as a strong ally of the only Jewish state in the Middle East. We also know that millions of dollars worth of Canadian defense products have made their way to the Israelis, stuff that includes “Software” and “Technology” materials (the specifics of which, we do not know the contents). In other words, it’s not a stretch to imagine CSEC is covertly aiding a key ally of the Canadian government during wartime.
CSEC, of course, is unwilling to clarify any of these major questions or the operations they’re involved with in the Middle East. In an email (which was designed as UNCLASSIFIED) sent to VICE by CSEC spokesperson Ryan Foreman, I was told “CSE does not comment on its methods, operations or capabilities.”