Thursday, July 19, 2018

OCSEC-2018 report released

The 2017-18 annual report of the Office of the CSE Commissioner (OCSEC) was made public on July 18th.

To sum it up in a sentence, CSE didn't do anything egregiously wrong in the last year, at least as far as OCSEC is concerned. So, good news there.

Of course, as a result it's pretty much a certainty that this report will soon join its predecessors lost in the depths of obscurity. That's a shame, because as always, there's some information worth salvaging from it.

Unlike the 2016-17 report, which I only got around to revisiting in the past two months, I'll try to explore this one over the next few days and weeks.

Monday, July 09, 2018

OCSEC-2017, part II: The circumstances are always exceptional



Welcome to stage two of our expedition to the wreck of the OCSEC 2016-2017 annual report, as we return to the site of the report's disappearance to see what else of interest may be down there. (See stage one here.)


Ooh, here's a neat little artefact! CSE has been spying on citizens or other residents of its Five Eyes allies.

For decades there has been a persistent rumour among the more conspiracy-minded of spy agency watchers that the Five Eyes agencies evade the legal limits placed on spying on their own citizens and within their own borders by getting their partner agencies to do this spying for them. And for just as long, those agencies have been dismissing that claim as a load of paranoid nonsense. Which, to be fair, it mostly is.

Twenty years ago the first CSE Commissioner addressed this concern in his 1997-98 annual report, assuring his readers that
CSE undertakes explicitly to treat the communications of Second Party nationals in a manner consistent with the procedures issued by the agency of that country, provided such procedures do not contravene the laws of Canada. This is a reciprocal undertaking to ensure that the Second Parties do not target each others’ communications or circumvent their own legislation by targeting communications at each others’ behest.
In more recent years, however, those agencies and their watchdogs have occasionally conceded, grudgingly, that, OK, yes, once in a while the allies do direct their surveillance capabilities at one another, and that in some of those cases the information thus collected is in fact passed on to the ally that was targeted.

For example, in his 2013-14 annual report (page 24) the current CSE Commissioner acknowledged that "each partner is an agency of a sovereign nation that may derogate from the agreements and resolutions, if it is judged necessary for their respective national interests." He went on to reassure his readers (page 25), however, that CSE
policies and procedures state that collection activities are not to be directed at second party nationals located anywhere, or against anyone located in second party territory. Document review, discussions in interviews and written answers suggest that [CSE] conducts its foreign signals intelligence activities in a manner that is consistent with the agreements it has with its second party partners to respect the privacy of the partners’ citizens, and to follow the partners’ policies in this regard.
In the 2015-16 report, a little bit more was revealed about how our Second Party partners don't consider themselves quite as entirely bound by this rule as our own upstanding CSE folks do. As the Commissioner noted (page 16), in "exceptional circumstances, one of CSE’s partners may acquire and report on information about a Canadian or a person in Canada." He then explained (page 17) that these exceptional circumstances were now occurring regularly enough that CSE had established a special mechanism to transfer the material — which probably mostly concerned Canadians involved in extremist-related activities in Syria and elsewhere — from the allied agencies that had collected it onward to CSIS.

This year it was CSE's turn in the spotlight (pages 16-17):
CSE policies and procedures state that collection activities are not to be directed at Five Eyes nationals located anywhere, or against anyone located in Five Eyes territory. Nevertheless, it is recognized that each of the Five Eyes partners is an agency of a sovereign nation that may deviate from these agreements if it is deemed necessary for their respective national interests. Accordingly, in such exceptional circumstances it may become necessary for CSE to acquire information involving Five Eyes nationals or a foreigner on Five Eyes territory. [emphasis added]
What followed should probably be described as exceptionally unsurprising. It turns out that circumstances have once again been exceptional and CSE has indeed been targeting Five Eyes nationals and/or territory.

In retrospect, it is tempting to conclude that the Commissioners' 1997-98 and 2013-14 statements were exceptionally disingenuous. But it is also possible that agency practices have been evolving at a rather rapid pace. The 2016-17 report notes (page 18) that "In 2015, CSE updated its policy [with respect to such monitoring] to more effectively respond to operational requirements and emergencies, and formalized certain existing practices."

In any case, if there's a Disingenuity Prize to be awarded, my vote would have go to John Forster, who as Chief of CSE assured the Senate in November 2012 that "I would no more target an American than they would a Canadian." This masterpiece of Schrödingerian superposition managed to be both exceptionally misleading and completely truthful at the same time. You have to admire the beauty of that, even as you remind yourself never to take a word these guys say at face value.

Still, we work with the information that we can dredge up, so back to the 2016-17 report.

In what was the first direct review undertaken of such targeting, the Commissioner looked at "all CSE-initiated activities involving Five Eyes nationals or a foreigner on Five Eyes territory" during the 20-month period from January 2015 to August 2016, amounting to a total of 11 "cases".

Eleven is a very small number, and while it is always possible that these 11 cases involved significantly more than 11 individuals, it's likely that the overall total was pretty small.

Still, this is not "incidental" collection of information obtained in the course of monitoring non-Five Eyes targets that we're talking about here: this is the deliberate targeting of allied nationals and/or territory, so even if the numbers are small it's potentially an explosive topic.

Given that possibility, before the Toddler in Chief fires up his Twitter account let's quickly note that this is not about the Canadian Deep State spying on Donald J. Trump. As sensible as it might be for the Canadian government to seek whatever advance warning it can get of the latest absurdities percolating in the Oval Office, a) the activities described in this report took place ca. 5 to 25 months before Trump took office, and b) there is not the slightest chance that the CSE Commissioner would have been permitted to reveal them if they involved anything liable to prompt awkward exchanges with the United States or other Five Eyes allies.

The Commissioner chooses his own topics to review and report, but it is the government that decides what information is declassified, so if anything truly embarrassing had been going on, people like me would still be wondering what the Commissioner meant by "certain activities" undertaken by CSE, not discussing the details of the targeting of Five Eyes partners. It is a safe bet that the U.S. and the other Five Eyes allies were well aware of the activities reported in this document.


Extremist Travellers phone home?

So what are we looking at here? Almost certainly not the Five Eyes partners spying on each other's political leaders or trade negotiators. In fact, for once the CSE Commissioner gives us a pretty clear indication (page 16): whereas last year's review examined the procedures used when CSE's partners "acquire and report information about Canadians located outside of Canada, for example, because they are known to be engaging in or supporting terrorist activities," this year's review looks at "the exceptional circumstances where CSE acquired information and reported on similar activities involving Five Eyes nationals."

With Canada actively involved in recent years in the battle against ISIS, and with all of the partners keenly interested in the activities of their nationals who have gone abroad to fight for that or other extremist causes and who may be seeking to radicalize others still at home, it seems that there is now tacit agreement among the partners that it's OK to target the nationals of the others when you encounter them in the course of counter-terrorism investigations.

If this is indeed what's going on, it may well be a reasonable exception to make under these specific, limited circumstances. But it should also raise some warning flags.

What is being done with the information collected by and shared among those allies, and perhaps beyond them, remains an issue. It is one thing to kill someone who is clearly part of an enemy armed force in an active theatre of war, even though they may be a citizen of your country. But what if, freed from past pledges not to monitor partner nationals, the U.S. targets a Canadian thought to be radicalizing other Westerners who is hiding out in Libya, where Canada is not at war but U.S. drone strikes are actively killing extremist supporters? Do we have an official position on that? What about the use of such information for arrest and subsequent torture? Presumably it is not the view of the government that it's open season on all Canadian "extremists" — convicted by spy agencies, not by courts — once they are outside our borders.

In 2015, Canada resumed the practice of requesting Five Eyes assistance when Canadians travelling outside Canada are monitored under CSIS warrants, even though this identifies those Canadians to our partners, who may then choose to do their own monitoring of those individuals for their own purposes, be they intelligence collection, rendition, or death. The Commissioner made a nod toward these concerns on page 18 of his report:
While not directly related to this review, the Commissioner again encouraged the Minister to address an outstanding July 2013 recommendation to issue a new ministerial directive to provide general direction to CSE on its foreign signals intelligence information-sharing activities with its Five Eyes partners.... The office was informed that a new ministerial directive is being developed that will explicitly acknowledge the risks associated with this type of sharing, given that CSE cannot, for reasons of sovereignty, demand that its Five Eyes partners account for any use of such information.
As of August 2017, however, no such directive had yet appeared, although a more limited directive on Avoiding Complicity in Mistreatment by Foreign Entities was signed in November 2017.

Another red flag concerns the possibility that the purposes of such monitoring may expand. Protecting against terrorism may be a reasonable and limited reason for bending the rules against monitoring each other's nationals, but how about preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction? That's pretty important. How about stopping child sexual exploitation? Or disrupting the deadly fentanyl trade? Where do you stop?

Counter-intelligence? Tax evasion? Illegal downloading?

Disloyalty to the President?

To be clear, we are a long, long way from a panoptical world where surveillance laws no longer matter because the other Five Eyes agencies are spying on everybody for us. We are not even remotely close to that world, and we probably never will be. We have many safeguards against it.

But you can see it from here, far away down there at the bottom of the slope we now seem to have stepped upon. Our footing seems pretty secure way up here, but we should probably tread carefully.


Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Bruce appointed Chief of CSE

Shelly Bruce has been appointed Chief of CSE effective immediately.

Bruce was appointed Associate Chief in November 2017 and has been serving as acting Chief of the agency since May 23rd, when the previous Chief, Greta Bossenmaier, was appointed National Security and Intelligence Advisor. Prior to serving as Associate Chief—a position that only occasionally appears on the CSE organization chart—Bruce spent eight years as the Deputy Chief in charge of the SIGINT side of the agency. (More on Bruce's bio here.)

Bruce is the 10th Chief CSE/Director CBNRC, and the first chosen from within the ranks of the agency since 1989:
  • Edward M. Drake (1946 - 1971)
  • N. Kevin O'Neill (1971 - 1980)
  • Peter R. Hunt (1980 - 1989)
  • A. Stewart Woolner (1989 - 1999)
  • D. Ian Glen (1999 - 2001)
  • Keith Coulter (2001 - 2005)
  • John L. Adams (2005 - 2012)
  • John Forster (2012 - 2015)
  • Greta Bossenmaier (2015 - 2018)
  • Shelly Bruce (2018 - )
The five Chiefs before Bruce were all brought in from outside the agency, a practice that presumably was begun to bring an outsider's perspective into CSE and perhaps encourage a somewhat less insular agency culture. Ministers typically develop very little in-depth knowledge of the workings of the agency and they may also have seen outside Chiefs as a safeguard against being bamboozled by the bureaucrats when they came to him for approval of this or that policy or proposal.

If that was the concern, however, it seems to be absent now. Not only was the new Chief hired from the inside, but CSE's promotion to stand-alone agency in 2011 removed both the Deputy Minister of National Defence and the National Security Advisor (as the position was then known) from the direct CSE chain of command. Both positions are filled by public servants, to be sure, but neither was beholden to the agency, and thus both were in a position to take a somewhat more skeptical view of its claims. I don't much fancy the Minister's chances if the agency should ever decide to "blind him with science" as the saying goes.

Not that I'm saying we should expect that from Bruce.

And the Minister won't be entirely defenceless in any case. The National Security and Intelligence Advisor is still in a position to comment on much of what CSE says and does, and having just been Chief herself, Bossenmaier will certainly know what's really going on there. The new National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, the CSE Commissioner, and, once Bill C-59 is passed, the upgraded watchdog agencies should also help the Minister stay apprised of what's going on.

Is it possible the government feels CSE now has enough outside eyes on it and no longer needs to put itself through the process of training a new Chief every few years?

Whatever the reason, it's clear that Bruce will be able to hit the ground running, and that has to be seen as a good thing by the agency as it prepares to adapt to its new C-59 authorities, including the power to conduct computer network attack operations, while standing up the new Canadian Centre for Cyber Security and managing on-going growth.


Monday, June 11, 2018

Exploring the wreck of the OCSEC-2017

The Office of the CSE Commissioner, CSE's soon to be replaced watchdog agency, released its 2016-17 Annual Report back in August 2017. As is traditional, it almost immediately sank from sight and was lost to all human ken. Nearly a year later, I guess it's about time I mounted my annual expedition to see if there's anything worth salvaging from it. With luck, I might manage to raise a few items before the 2017-18 report is launched.

Unlike the 2015-16 report, this report did receive a modicum of media coverage in the immediate wake of its release, specifically on the issue of information-sharing with allies. (See Justin Ling, "Canada still hasn’t developed new rules for intelligence sharing with U.S. and allies," Vice News, 24 August 2017 and Alison Crawford, "Canada's electronic spy agency to get new rules for sharing data with allies," CBC News, 29 August 2017.) But I'm willing to bet there's still lots of material worth examining lying in the forgotten hulk.

So let's get this expedition underway.


Use/retention of private communications up 25,653%

OK, here's something interesting. According to the CSE Commissioner, in 2015-16 CSE used or retained 3,348 "private communications" that were collected under the agency's foreign intelligence program (see page 39 of the report).

In Canadian law, a private communication is a communication with at least one end in Canada. CSE's foreign intelligence program is not allowed to "target" Canadians or any person located in Canada, but if a foreign target of the agency who is located outside Canada communicates with someone inside Canada, CSE is permitted to collect that private communication as long as there is a Ministerial Authorization permitting such collection in place (and, rest assured, there is). The 3,348 figure reported by the Commissioner represents only one portion of the total number of private communications collected or otherwise acquired by CSE under the three parts of its mandate, but it's a potentially important indicator of how often Canadians get pulled into CSE's foreign intelligence collection activities.

I've been using highway signs to depict the private communications numbers reported by the Commissioner. In 2012-13 the number was 66 and in 2013-14 it was 17, later revised to 13. Last year it was 342, which was a bit of a challenge but I did find a suitable highway. This year I've had to improvise...



That's a big number. The Commissioner's report comments that the 2015-16 total is "almost 3,000" higher than the previous year total, which seems like an unusual way to put it since the actual difference is 3,006. Maybe the 2014-15 number was revised too. In any case, the two numbers aren't strictly comparable, as the 2014-15 figure refers to a seven-month period, while the 2015-16 figure covers a full twelve months. To get an apples-to-apples comparison, we need to go back two years to the 13 private communications used or retained over the twelve months of 2013-14.

Those figures show that the number of private communications used or retained by CSE's foreign intelligence program jumped by 25,653% between 2013-14 and 2015-16. That's a comma, not a decimal point: Twenty-five thousand six hundred and fifty-three percent.

So, yeah. Quite a big jump.

We do get an explanation of sorts for the change: "The increase in the number of used or retained private communications remains a consequence of the technical characteristics of certain communications technologies, and CSE’s legal obligations to count private communications in a certain manner."

But that doesn't really answer many questions.

In 2016, when this growth trend first became apparent, I speculated that CSE may be collecting an increasing number of communications transmitted by chat applications such as Facebook Messenger. Because each individual comment in such conversations is a separate transmission, it is likely that each would be considered a separate private communication for legal purposes. Thus, a single conversation lasting a just few minutes might contain dozens of private communications. If this is what explains the dramatic jump in the numbers since 2013-14, there may have been little if any actual increase in the number of persons in Canada whose conversations or other communications are being caught in CSE's dragnet.

That would certainly explain the Commissioner's apparent lack of concern about the numbers.

The current report doesn't confirm that theory (or provide any other intelligible explanation), but it does comment that "the current manner in which CSE counts private communications provides a distorted view of the number of Canadians or persons in Canada that are involved in (i.e., are the other end of) CSE interceptions to obtain foreign intelligence under ministerial authorizations."

And the report provides one additional key piece of information: The 533 private communications that were actually used in CSE's foreign intelligence reporting in 2015-16 (as opposed to temporarily retained for possible future use) appeared in a total of just 20 end product reports. This means that on average 26.65 private communications were cited in each one of those reports. Since some reports almost certainly concerned just a single private communication, many of them are likely to have cited 40 or 50 or more.

A little background on SIGINT end product reports might be helpful here. CSE does not produce extended intelligence assessments — it reports SIGINT facts, such as a single key piece of information overheard in an intercepted phone call. CSE analysts don't sit on such intelligence: they disseminate it to their clients in an individual end product report with as little delay as possible. If 20 or 30 or 40 private communications appear in a single end product report, it is because all of those communications were acquired at essentially the same time. And if this is happening routinely, it's almost certainly because the communications systems that CSE has begun to frequently target routinely generate large numbers of private communications at a time.

Which sounds like chat apps to me.

If these numbers do indicate growing collection of chat-related traffic by CSE, it would appear that the increasing use of encryption in those apps has not had the effect of shutting CSE out of that traffic — at least, not as of 2015-16. Are CSE's targets using insecure messaging apps, or versions that have been "enabled" to undermine their security? Are end-point operations, such as implanting malware on target smartphones, being used to bypass encryption? Given the high level of concern expressed by intelligence and security agencies in recent years about the prospects of "going dark", it will be interesting to see if the number of private communications used by CSE drops off in future reports.

I suspect CSE won't be entirely pleased to see this kind of speculation bandied about — even if my specific guesses are completely off base, which they may well be — so let me just suggest to the agency that if you were instead to declassify figures such as the number of individual persons in Canada who appeared in end product reports that year, the number whose identity information was released to clients at least once, and the total number of reports in which private communications were cited, the public would get figures much better suited to monitoring the privacy implications of CSE's operations, those figures would probably be more reassuring than the ones we get now (and if they're not, all the more reason to release them), and CSE's targets would be denied any basis for speculating as to the types of communications being monitored.

On page 4 of his report, the CSE Commissioner makes a direct plea for greater openness by CSE, highlighting "the need to re-examine what information is able to be disclosed to the public in an effort to promote transparency. Transparency has been a cornerstone of my approach as Commissioner. There have been significant strides in this regard in the United Kingdom and in the United States. It is time to do likewise in Canada."

Seems like a good idea to me.


More to come on the report in future posts (I hope).

Update 9 July 2018:

Stage two here.



Monday, June 04, 2018

Canadian Centre for Cyber Security to absorb CSE IT Security program?

It looks like the new Canadian Centre for Cyber Security (CCCS) announced in the 2018 budget (see p. 205) will be absorbing most, probably all, of the IT Security program at CSE.

[Update 12 June 2018: Confirmed. "From CSE, the entire IT Security branch will be transformed to become part of the Cyber Centre."]

Defence Minister Sajjan recently told The Hill Times (Jolson Lim, "Sajjan to unveil 20-year defence spending plan this spring; says active cybersecurity powers from Bill C-59 will be checked," Hill Times, 28 May 2018; subscribers only) that the CCCS will have a staff of about 750: "The cyber centre will unite approximately 750 employees from existing cybersecurity operations units at Public Safety Canada, Shared Services Canada, and the Communications Security Establishment into one organization, as part of CSE."

That's about one and half times the size of the entire IT Security staff at CSE. The Deputy Chief in charge of IT Security, Scott Jones, recently stated that CSE's ITSEC program has "around 500" employees, although that total would not include ITSEC's share of CSE's policy, administration, and support staff. Add in the (undisclosed number of) employees at Shared Services' Security Operations Centre and Public Safety's Canadian Cyber Incident Response Centre, who are being transferred to CSE to become part of CCCS, and you presumably get somewhat closer to the 750 figure, but substantial new hiring is also likely to be required. The $44.5-million on-going budget boost promised for the CCCS as part of Budget 2018 suggests that as many as 150-200 new employees might be brought on staff.

The U.K.'s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) already operates on this model. Created in 2016, the NCSC absorbed GCHQ's existing Communications-Electronics Security Group and merged it with a number of other cyber security organizations from across the U.K. government. Although it has a separate public identity, the NCSC remains an arm of GCHQ.

According to the Defence Minister, the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security will be fully operational by the fall of 2019. Sajjan also stated that the government expects to name the first head of the Centre "this spring", so presumably that announcement is imminent. ITSEC head Scott Jones is the obvious candidate for the job unless he has plans for some other role in the agency or elsewhere.

CSE is currently in the market for a new Chief for the entire agency, but the government hasn't hired from within CSE for that job since Stew Woolner got the position in 1989 so it would be a bit of a surprise if they went that route. Also, although Jones would undoubtedly be well qualified for the job of Chief, Acting Chief Shelly Bruce would likely be the first choice if agency employees were actually in the running.

All in all, I'd be surprised if Jones is not chosen to head the CCCS. Presumably we'll hear soon.

And maybe we'll learn more about plans for the CCCS when the government finally unveils its promised National Cyber Security Strategy.


Update 12 June 2018: Yup, Jones will be the head of the new centre.


Monday, April 16, 2018

And still darker: CSE stops reporting budget breakdown

The Main Estimates for fiscal year 2018-2019 were tabled today in parliament and — surprise! — CSE reported even less information than it has in the past.

Instead of providing a breakdown of its spending showing the amounts allotted to the Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) program and the Information Technology Security (ITSEC) program, as it has done every previous year since 2012, this year the agency is providing only a single overall figure, with a paraphrase of the agency's motto, "Protect and Provide Information", offered in lieu of any actual explanation. Maybe we should be grateful that at least it wasn't provided in the original Latin.

In correspondence with me, after the original version of this article was posted, CSE said that the reduction in data was prompted by a change in the way the Treasury Board wants to organize this kind of reporting. To demonstrate their continued openness they tweeted the figures for 2018-19: $407,399,615 for the SIGINT program and $217,494,338 for the ITSEC program.

I commend CSE for doing that, but I still think the change is highly regrettable.

According to the agency, in the future the only routine public reporting of these numbers will be through the government's online data portal INFOBASE, where they will appear only sometime after the end of the relevant fiscal year. They will no longer appear in either the Estimates or the Public Accounts, or presumably in any other form of published paper documentation.

Posting out of date numbers on INFOBASE is certainly better than nothing, especially for people like me who study the history of the agency over a timeframe of decades.

But it is not good for people interested in current policy and plans. If you want to know how much the government proposes to spend in a particular year on Canada's cybersecurity, for example, or even whether that spending will be going up or down, you could very well be out of luck.

And that includes the MPs who will be voting to provide those funds, unless they elicit the numbers from CSE in committee testimony or otherwise. CSE promises that it will be providing those numbers to the committee that examines the Estimates. But even if that does happen every year without fail, it is no substitute for publishing them in a formal document available to all.

[Update 21 June 2018: Aaaaand the first test of this system is now complete and it has already failed, at least as far as the public record is concerned.]

So, call it inadvertent or incidental, but this is a backward step, away from transparency.

CSE has repeatedly promised in recent years to increase the level of transparency about its operations, and it has been somewhat more open in certain ways.

But it has a long way to go to get back to the level of transparency that existed in 2011, and this is a step in the wrong direction.

Let's review some of the backward steps since 2011.

The last time CSE appeared in the Department of National Defence's Report on Plans and Priorities was in June 2011. A supplementary document called Section IV: Other Items of Interest contained an entire section on CSE. That document has been memory-holed entirely from the government's website, but I saved a copy back then, so you can read CSE's section here.

In that Golden Age of Transparency, CSE reported not only its 2011-12 total budget, but also a breakdown of its budget into Salary and Personnel; Operating and Maintenance; and Capital spending. It also provided projections of all those figures for the following two fiscal years, 2012-13 and 2013-14.

It also provided a list of the key government intelligence priorities that CSE would attempt to cover during the coming fiscal year and a description of some of the initiatives planned for that year, notably occupation of the building that became Pod 1 of CSE's new headquarters complex and the start of construction of the remainder of the complex.

Finally, the section reported the number of civilian full-time equivalent employees (FTEs) the agency would have in 2011-12 and projected numbers for the two following years (although to be fair the latter numbers, which were identical to the 2011-12 numbers, were probably intended just to be placeholders).

All that ended in November 2011 when CSE became a stand-alone agency. It no longer appears in DND's Report on Plans and Priorities (or Departmental Plan, as it is now known). Nor does it publish its own.

Neither does it publish a Departmental Results Report or an Annual Report (although under Bill C-59 there would be an Annual Report of some kind).

CSE did begin appearing under its own name in the Main Estimates documents beginning in 2012-13.

But almost all of the information that appeared in DND's report was gone. What we were left with was little more than a short boilerplate description of the agency, the overall number for the coming fiscal year only, and — the only new piece of information provided — the spending numbers for the SIGINT program and the ITSEC program. So, one step forward and about ten steps backward.

CSE's public affairs people somehow managed to call this "enhanced" reporting. I suppose that's what public affairs people get paid to do, but for an agency that wants Canadians to take a lot of what they say on trust, this was not their finest hour.

Among the information that was no longer reported was the number of FTEs, but that loss at least was mitigated by the fact that CSE's staff numbers were still being reported on a monthly basis by the Treasury Board Secretariat.

But then that ended in February 2016.

I don't think that change, which affected reporting on staff numbers at all government departments and agencies, was prompted by CSE, and when I had a chance in November 2016 to ask Dom Rochon, CSE's Deputy Chief, Policy and Communications, whether CSE would consider publishing the figures itself, he seemed open to the idea. But it hasn't happened.

So that went dark too.

(To be fair, out of date annual figures are available on INFOBASE.)

And now we're losing formal, and timely, publication of the SIGINT/ITSEC breakdown.

As one who has often seen important information posted and then later removed from government websites, I find its promised publication after the fact in online form, while much better than nothing, far from entirely reassuring. If MPs insist on getting the numbers on the record at the beginning of every fiscal year at committee that will help a great deal.

But it would be better, and much more reliable, to simply publish them as before. Is this really so hard to do?



[This post was updated on 18 April 2018 in light of the information provided by CSE.]

Monday, April 09, 2018

The hunt for GHOSTHUNTER



In September 2016, The Intercept published this image taken by a U.S. photoreconnaissance satellite of an unidentified city. An ellipse overlaid on the image showed the estimated location of a target Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) satellite dish as determined by the GHOSTHUNTER program. (You can read more about GHOSTHUNTER in The Intercept's article: Ryan Gallagher, "Inside Menwith Hill: The NSA’s British Base at the Heart of U.S. Targeted Killing," The Intercept, 6 September 2016).

A couple of days ago I decided it might be interesting to determine exactly where that city is. Knowing its location might enable us to discover which satellite — probably one of the massive ORION satellites in geosynchronous orbit — had produced the VSAT location estimate, and it would also enable us to make an accurate measurement of the ellipse. The location might also provide some insight into the kinds of targets these capabilities were being used against.

But how to identify the city? My first thought was to use the shadows in the image. The exact date and time the image was taken (28 January 2009 at 05:16Z, with Z meaning Greenwich Mean Time) is shown on the image, and so is a north arrow. I figured measuring the direction of the shadows should enable me to determine a more or less north-south line on the globe along which the city ought to be located. The tricky part is that the satellite photo was taken from an angle (which means, for example, that the streets don't intersect at right angles in the image, even though it seems likely that they do in real life), making it difficult to measure the angle of the shadows accurately.



Skewing the image to make the street layout rectangular produced the image shown above, from which I determined the direction of the sun to be around 126.5 degrees, probably plus or minus at least a couple of degrees because of the imprecision of the whole process.

That measurement in turn produced an estimated line of location that extended along the western shores of the Caspian Sea down through Azerbaijan and western Iran and across the eastern part of the Arabian peninsula, curving a bit to the east as it proceeded southwards.

That seemed like a pretty good place to start, so I fired up Google Earth and had a look.

Sadly, nothing I could find looked like the city in the photo. In fact, none of the cities near my search line featured architecture remotely resembling that in the image, with its numerous open courtyards and long sections of roof constructed of multiple vaults in series. Clearly something was off.

So on to Plan B: Widen the search area and find the cities with that kind of architecture.

I did find similar-looking vaulted roofs in parts of eastern Iran. But there was still no city that really resembled the target.

Herat, in Afghanistan, however, was another matter. Although still not the right city, it was much, much closer to the right style. So it was time to take a closer look at Afghanistan.


Home, home in Zaranj

A point-by-point search of small cities in western Afghanistan led eventually to Zaranj, in the southwestern part of the country just a couple of kilometres from the border with Iran.



Here you can see the spy satellite image overlaid on the Google Earth image. It's a match!

...about 1000 km to the east of my initial line of search. So, what went wrong with the shadow method? It turns out the spy satellite image was not only skewed, it was also stretched along the east-west axis. As can be seen in the formerly circular logos in this version, the image had to be compressed to match the underlying Google Earth photo. That changes the angle of the shadows, which now indicate the direction of the sun to be about 135 degrees, not 126.5. A search along the line determined by that information, through western Afghanistan and Pakistan's Balochistan province, would have sped things up considerably. But I don't see any way to have determined the necessary correction ahead of time.

Anyway, we now have a spy satellite photo newly identified to be of Zaranj.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Zaranj turns out to be the kind of burg where a lot of activity that might be of interest to intelligence agencies takes place. This 2012 article, titled "The Scariest Little Corner of the World" (Luke Mogelson, New York Times Magazine, 18 October 2012), takes a fascinating look at the city and the region around it. Between the Hazaras, Tajiks, Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Afghan Baluchis, other Afghans, Pakistani Baluchis, other Pakistanis, Iranian Baluchis, other Iranians, Indians, Americans, other NATO forces, and, going back a ways, the Soviets, a lot has been going on. I won't even try to summarize it all here.


Analysis of the ellipse

As noted above, the ellipse on the photo shows the estimated location of a VSAT satellite dish that the NSA or other SIGINT agencies were monitoring and wanted to geolocate. Several candidate dishes that were found within the ellipse are highlighted, but it is not clear whether any of these dishes were singled out as probably being the target dish.

The long axis of the ellipse is oriented towards the southeast at an angle of about 134 degrees, which is quite close to the direction of the sun at the time the photo was taken, but that's just a coincidence. What is probably not a coincidence is that it also points pretty much exactly in the direction of the U.S. ORION 2 geosynchronous SIGINT satellite.

[Update 11 April 2018: Actually, it probably is a coincidence. As Marco Langbroek helpfully pointed out, the ellipse probably represents the location estimated by monitoring the VSAT dish from two SIGINT satellites at the same time, which means it very likely doesn't point in the direction of either one of them. As he noted, this document confirms that two satellites are used when making such estimates. So, sadly, it may not be possible to determine precisely which of the geosynchronous SIGINT satellites were involved in this case.

But Marco was able to identify the photoreconnaissance satellite involved: "I could positively identify the optical reconnaissance satellite that made the photographic image as USA 129 (1996-072A), a classified KH-11 "Keyhole" electro-optical reconnaissance satellite that made a pass over Zaranj at the given date and time based on amateur tracking data." Thanks, Marco!]

The size of the resulting ellipse will vary in each particular case according to the geometry of the intercepts and other factors, but this example gives an indication of how precisely SIGINT satellites can geolocate a transmitting VSAT dish. As measured in Google Earth, the ellipse is around 207 metres wide by 465 metres long, and thus covers an area of about 75,600 square metres, roughly seven and a half hectares. The data box attached to the ellipse originally provided a figure, redacted by The Intercept, for CEP, which is an abbreviation for circular error probable. This probably means that the ellipse depicts the area within which the dish was estimated to have a 50% chance of being located.


That's pretty impressive precision when you consider that these satellites orbit at an altitude of nearly 36,000 km and the slant range to their targets is even greater.


There may be other details that can be learned from a close examination of this image, but those are the obvious ones that come to my mind. Suggestions for other points [and other corrections] would be welcomed.

Nearly half a century after the first geosynchronous SIGINT satellite was launched (CANYON 1 on 6 August 1968), it's nice to learn a little bit more about how they operate.