How Not To Defend Your Signals Intelligence Agency

Many Canadians, at this point, will have heard that our foreign signals intelligence agency has reportedly been spying in Brasil. Specifically, the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) has been accused of using “email and phone metadata to map internal communications within Brazil’s Mines and Energy Ministry through a software program called Olympia.” This has created quite a stir and forced the federal government of Canada to defend itself, and CSEC’s actions.

However, at a technology conference the head of CSEC tried to pacify Canadians by stating that there was already appropriate oversight of the agency’s actions. Referring to the independent commissioner overseeing CSEC, John Foster said, the commissioner “and his office have full access to every record, every system and every staff member to ensure that we follow Canadian laws and respect Canadians’ privacy.”

Foster is playing a game with Canadians. And it’s not a very good one. Given the CSEC reputedly engages in more ‘transactions’ each day than all of the banks in Canada combined, and given the relative size of the commissioner’s staff (usually a dozen or less) compared to CSEC’s staff (roughly 2,000), and the blurriness of the law guiding CSEC’s actions, I really can’t imagine how Canadians could possibly be reassured from Foster’s statements. No, what is clear is that rather than wanting to have a meaningful discussion – perhaps acknowledging deficiencies in oversight, the need to mediate CSEC’s actions so they align with Canada’s foreign policy positions, or something along those lines – he has purely said that Canadians should be satisfied with how things are today.

If Mr. Foster wants to be taken seriously then perhaps as a first, very small, bit of ‘goodwill’ he will disclose how exactly CSEC respects Canadians’ privacy: information on how this is ensured was redacted in documents from CSEC (see page 23). Providing the plaintext would be one first, good, step towards actually – instead of rhetorically – assuaging concerns Canadians might have over how signals intelligence is conducted in Canada.