CSEC: the organization most Canadians may not know about

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This government agency employs over 2 000 people and has a budget of $422 million. It is housed in the most expensive building in Canadian government history—worth $1.1 billion. It has sweeping authority outside other government bodies, including the RCMP. Yet, most Canadians have never heard of it, its activity is more or less beyond public scrutiny, and, recent information reveals, it collects a gamut of information about Canadians, without their knowledge or consent. The Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) is the true-north equivalent to the much maligned National Security Agency (NSA) of the United States—meaning, the primary body for surveilling telecommunications. It is not to be confused with Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), which is the Canadian national intelligence agency (similar to the U.S. CIA).

CSEC is accountable to the Minister of Defence, Peter Mackay, and its activities are not widely known. It is expressly illegal for CSEC to collect information on Canadians, including so-called “metadata” collection—the sort of activity conducted by the NSA, as revealed by Edward Snowden. However, Canada is a member of the “Five Eyes” group of countries (including the U.S., U.K., Australia, and New Zealand) that have  shared intelligence for decades. The nature of these countries’ information sharing is mostly secret, yet spokespeople for the relevant agencies say no laws are violated in letter or spirit, and agencies respect the privacy of citizens. However, former NSA systems administrator Edward Snowden’s leaks cast serious doubt over the veracity of such statements.

Specifically, in documents released by Snowden, it was revealed that CSEC used airport Wi-Fi to track the activities of Canadian travelers. This appears to contradict CSEC’s statements and Canadian law. Such metadata collection allows CSEC to track the activity of not only those who used airport Wi-Fi, but may also reveal the whereabouts of those they communicated with, how long they were in contact, and the services they used to communicate.

This information collection was part of a trial run for software developed by CSEC for use by it and the NSA. The metadata may allow CSEC to construct detailed profiles of Canadians, including their browsing habits, friends, and contacts, as well as their physical movements—without a warrant and without disclosure to anyone but government.

Whether or the extent to which CSEC strictly violates Canadian laws and the privacy of Canadians is unknown. Canadians, as citizens, know little about the activity of this agency, despite its resources and potentially low parliamentary oversight.
Promise of improved security offered by CSEC may be unsubstantiated.

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