Tag Archives: CBCNews

CSE: What do we know about Canada's eavesdropping agency? - CBC News 20130614

Original: CSE: What do we know about Canada's eavesdropping agency? - CBC News 20140613

Canada's national cryptologic agency is among the most secretive organization in the country - CBC News

Leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in 2013 showed how the National Security Agency in the U.S. and its counterparts all over the world have been collecting massive amounts of information on citizens.

Leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in 2013 showed how the National Security Agency in the U.S. and its counterparts all over the world have been collecting massive amounts of information on citizens.

Recent revelations about the extent of surveillance by the National Security Agency in the U.S. have sparked interest in the activities of Canada's own highly secretive agency.

The Communications Security Establishment (CSE) is the lesser known of Canada's two spy agencies and focuses on electronic surveillance.

Here’s a closer look at CSE and what it does.

What is it?

CSE describes itself as "Canada's national cryptologic agency." Simply put, it encodes and decodes secretive computerized messages. In today's cyber-focused world, that means sifting through online activity to hunt down and prevent potential attacks.

The electronic surveillance service has three mandates. It's expected to gather foreign signals intelligence, known among the spies as SIGINT, which specifically refers to monitoring online activity abroad.

But it has also been given the task of protecting the government here at home from hackers and state-sponsored attacks on its computer systems. That gives the agency a dual mandate: offensive and defensive.

Thirdly, the spy agency is expected to lend its technical expertise to law enforcement and security agencies such as the RCMP and CSIS, Canada's primary security agency.

'It’s a reasonable question to ask on what basis we can be confident they are keeping in the law when there’s such technical capability of them sharing information.'— Andrew Clement, University of Toronto

When was it established?

The decades-old agency first took root in 1941 during the Second World War.

At the time, the small team of cryptographers called the Examination Unit operated out of a house in Ottawa, trying to intercept and analyze war communications. It was then part of the National Research Council (NRC).

Five years later, it became the Communications Branch of NRC. Though WWII was over, authorities in both the U.S. and Canada decided that signals intelligence was still highly valuable in that Cold War period.

Canada's most secretive agency, this unit only came to the public's attention nearly two decades later when, in 1974, CBC TV aired a documentary on it titled The Fifth Estate: The Espionage Establishment.

After that, the rapidly expanding unit was renamed the Communications Security Establishment and placed in the National Defence portfolio.


In 2011, then defence minister Peter MacKay okayed the renewal of a secret metadata mining program by the Communications Security Establishment.

The agency swelled further after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S., with a doubling of its personnel and a broader mandate.

Passed in late 2001, the Anti-terrorism Act gave CSE expanded use of electronic surveillance. Under the new law, it could intercept foreign communications that begin or end domestically as long as one party is outside Canada.

How big is it?

The organization employs approximately 2,000 people. In 2013-2014, its budget was estimated at $460 million.

A new $880-million headquarters is under construction in Ottawa to house the ever-expanding workforce. The 72,000-square-metre compound is located in the eastern part of Ottawa and is scheduled to open in 2015.

How does CSE differ from CSIS?

Both spy agencies monitor security threats against Canada, but there are crucial differences in focus and how they operate.

The better-known Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) grew out of the old RCMP Security Service and looks for threats inside Canada. CSE primarily examines threats outside the country.

As well, CSIS uses human intelligence, meaning spies and informers in its work, while CSE relies almost entirely on technology to monitor threats from abroad.

Does CSE share information with other countries?

CSE shares information with intelligence agencies in the so-called "Five Eyes" group of countries — namely the U.S., U.K., Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

What is CSE monitoring exactly?

The full extent of CSE’s monitoring activities is not known, but it primarily collects foreign communications.

Questions have arisen over whether it collects what's called electronic metadata — essentially the data about the electronic transmission — because it can provide significant details about an individual. Online metadata can include cellphone numbers, length and time of calls, email addresses and internet routing information.

CSE is legally allowed to use metadata, but only, the act suggests, in a global context or to protect the government's computer systems.

Greta Bossenmaier

Greta Bossenmaier was recently named the new head of CSE. (Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada)

Is CSE spying on Canadians?

CSE says it does not intentionally target the private communications of Canadians or any person in Canada. It's constrained by the National Defence Act.

But ministerial authorizations also give the agency special permissions, and those can include allowing it to intercept Canadian communications under certain conditions.

However, CSE is also part of the "Five Eyes" group of countries with whom it has shared intelligence for decades, observes Andrew Clement, a professor in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto.

While each of these intelligence agencies assures its citizens that it is only focused on foreign communications, Clement says that it stands to reason that in sharing information with its intelligence partners CSE could be gaining intelligence on Canadians.

CSE "will never confirm or deny this," Clement says, "but there’s a very strong suggestion [that they do], and in the face of these revelations, it’s a reasonable question to ask on what basis we can be confident they are keeping to the law when there’s such technical capability for them sharing information."

David Skillicorn, a professor in the School of Computing at Queen’s University, says this sharing is one aspect of the data collecting relationship "that has always been carefully constructed."

"The Americans will not use Canadians to collect data on U.S. persons, nor will any of the other Five Eyes countries," Skillicorn says.

"In fact, in practice, it’s as if the five countries’ citizens were one large, collective group, and their mutual communications are not intercepted by any in the Five Eyes community."

Still, Clement says he believes there are extenuating circumstances when CSE actually eavesdrops on the content of specific communications when a person is "of interest."

What kind of oversight is there for CSE?

There's no day-to-day oversight of CSE, but there is an independent body — the CSE Commissioner's Office — set up to review its past activities each year. A retired judge serves in the part-time position of CSE commissioner and has a small office of employees to help him conduct reviews.

The commissioner must submit regular reports to the minister and an annual report to Parliament. The goal of the review agency is to ensure it is complying with the law. Though the office has issued a number of recommendations, it has never found CSE to be acting unlawfully.

"Certainly there is a governance and a structure in place above CSE and the other bits of the intelligence organizations," says Skillicorn.

"But I think every Western country has had the experience of some quote-unquote scandal, which has resulted in [the forming of] a commission of some sort and the imposition of a new regulatory framework. And that suggests that things are never quite as clean as people would like them to be."

CSEC Snowden docs: MPs grill defence minister on spying revelation - CBC News 20140131

Original: CSEC Snowden docs: MPs grill defence minister on spying revelation - CBC News 20140131

Tories say independent report shows CSEC obeys law as NDP, Liberals call tracking, spying illegal - by Laura Payton, CBC News

Nothing in a document obtained by CBC News suggests Canada's communications spy agency used airport Wi-Fi to track Canadians, Defence Minister Rob Nicholson said Friday.

Nothing in a document obtained by CBC News suggests Canada's communications spy agency used airport Wi-Fi to track Canadians, Defence Minister Rob Nicholson said Friday. (Reuters)

Opposition MPs say the government has to do more to reassure Canadians after a document newly released by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden suggested Canada's communications spy agency tracked people through free airport Wi-Fi.

The top secret document shows Canada's electronic spy agency used information from the free internet service at a major Canadian airport to track the wireless devices of thousands of ordinary airline passengers for days after they left the terminal.

Under repeated questioning by opposition MPs on Friday, Defence Minister Rob Nicholson didn't directly deny the story, but said that the document detailing work by the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) doesn't show that Canadian communications were targeted or used.

New Democrat House Leader Nathan Cullen said the government needs to offer proof no Canadians were tracked.

"All we saw in the House today was rhetoric and empty lines. Talking points aren't going to assure Canadians that they are not in fact being spied upon by their government," Cullen said.

"We see quotation [marks] and weasel-words from the minister. This is worrisome for me and it certainly doesn't give any assurance to Canadians who are properly worried as well."

Nicholson says CSEC "made it clear to CBC that nothing in the documents that they had obtained showed that Canadian communications were targeted, collected, or used, nor that travellers' movements were tracked."

The spy agency is supposed to be collecting primarily foreign intelligence by intercepting overseas phone and internet traffic, and is prohibited by law from targeting Canadians or anyone in Canada without a judicial warrant.

More CSEC debate next week

The Liberal Party moved to continue debate on Tuesday, planning to devote a day to debating the spy agency's activity. Liberal MP Wayne Easter will move that the government "immediately order CSEC to cease" all illegal monitoring of Canadians and "increase proper oversight" through a committee of parliamentarians.

The non-binding motion will be debated as part of a regularly scheduled opposition day in which one of the non-governing parties controls the day's agenda.

That debate will come the day after senators on the national security and defence committee have a chance to question John Forster, CSEC's chief, as well as Prime Minister Stephen Harper's national security adviser, Stephen Rigby, and Michel Coulombe, director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

Three consumer and privacy groups wrote to Daniel Lang, the committee's Conservative chair, on Friday to ask that he have the three experts testify under oath.

“It is vital to get to the bottom of what our intelligence agencies are doing in terms of mass surveillance of Canadians contrary to the law," Vincent Gogolek wrote on behalf of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, Open Media and the Canadian Internet and Public Interest Clinic.

"Your committee has the first opportunity to ask these questions, and we believe the gravity of this fact-finding exercise must be impressed on your witnesses. As such, we ask that testimony from these officials scheduled for Monday, Feb. 3, 2014, occur under oath.”

Metadata at issue

The latest Snowden document indicates the spy service was provided with information captured from unsuspecting travellers' wireless devices by the airport's free Wi-Fi system over a two-week period.​ In the case of the airport tracking operation, that information came from metadata that apparently identified travellers' wireless devices, but not the content of calls made or emails sent from them.

New Democrat MP David Christopherson asked Nicholson to categorically deny the agency has tracked Canadians, but Nicholson would only say that regular reports by a watchdog, the CSEC commissioner, affirm the signals intelligence agency doesn't break the law.

Nicholson declined to be interviewed by CBC News following question period.

Nicholson's argument seemed to hinge on a difference in terminology, referring to communications rather than metadata.

Metadata reveals a trove of information including, for example, the location and telephone numbers of all calls a person makes and receives — but not the content of the call, which would legally be considered a private communication and cannot be intercepted without a warrant.

Charmaine Borg, the NDP's digital issues critic, zeroed in on the question of metadata and their distinction from a person's conversations.

"Is the government really claiming that gathering information is not the same as illegally tracking Canadians?" she said.

Nicholson repeated that nothing in the document "showed that Canadians' communications were targeted, collected or used, nor that travellers' movements were tracked.​"

Value of intelligence vs. privacy

CSEC itself referred to the metadata around a person's communications, which it is legally authorized to collect and analyze as part of its role in gathering foreign intelligence.

"Metadata is technical information used to route communications, and not the contents of a communication," CSEC said in a written statement.

Metadata is "the new frontier of signals intelligence operations around the world," said Wesley Wark, an expert on national security and visiting professor at the University of Ottawa.

Wark says metadata is valuable because intelligence agencies can trace the networks through which communications flow and identify patterns and people they may be concerned about.

"You don't actually have to read the content of communications if you can follow the networks' signalling and patterns and movements involved as people move from place to place with their wireless devices and so on, and you still have an important intelligence tool," Wark said.

"Many voices have said there's not really any significant intelligence payoff that could be measured in the balance against the potential intrusions to civil liberties and privacy."

Liberal MP Scott Brison said MPs spend a lot of time in airports and questioned whether the government would tell any MPs or other Canadians whether they had been caught up "in this data sweep."

"And will the minister initiate his own investigation into CSEC's activities to reassure Canadians that their privacy has not been violated?"

Nicholson didn't answer the question.

Interim Privacy Commissioner Chantal Bernier says privacy is a fundamental right and that privacy law needs to be modernized to address concepts like metadata.

"People do not want to be tracked. People do not believe that their metadata is innocuous," Bernier told CBC News.