Monday, June 26, 2006

In the news: Lamer on CSE and the law

CSE Commissioner Antonio Lamer "says he's not getting the detailed information he needs to be sure the secretive spy outfit is obeying the rules," reports Jim Bronskill ("Canada's high-tech spies leave Lamer in the dark," Canadian Press, 26 June 2006):
The dispute stems from differing legal interpretations held by Mr. Lamer's independent counsel and the deputy minister of Justice, whose department provides legal direction to the CSE.

“The lack of clarity in this regard has made it difficult for my staff to assess compliance with certain of the conditions that the legislation requires to be satisfied before a ministerial authorization is given.”

Mr. Lamer says he has “offered specific recommendations” to the defence minister and CSE to iron out “ambiguities” in the legislation governing the CSE.

As a result, Mr. Lamer qualifies his finding that CSE activities 2005-06 complied with the law “as it is currently interpreted by the Department of Justice.”
See the CSE Commissioner's Annual Report, released on June 22nd, for the full text of Lamer's comments.

Update: 2 July 2006
Thomas Walkom comments on the lack of media interest in Lamer's comments ("Is Ottawa listening in? No one seems to care," Toronto Star, 1 July 2006): "This week, when former Supreme Court chief justice Antonio Lamer hinted that a secretive government snooping agency called the Communications Security Establishment may be breaking the law, he received 630 words on page eight of the Globe, nothing in the Post or Star and 126 words in The Record of Kitchener-Waterloo."

The reasons for the lack of attention to the CSE Commissioner's comments and to other activities of the security agencies, says Walkom, "stem from this country's overweening culture of bureaucratization." Among other points, Walkom argues that "more often than not, [government-appointed] watchdogs adopt the bureaucratic sensibilities of those they are overseeing — with the result that, when they do say something noteworthy, it is almost incomprehensible." Exhibit A: the CSE Commissioner's latest report.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Speak friend and enter

CSE and other agencies of the Canadian government have spent more than $42 million over the last three years buying updated secure telephone units and other equipment from the NSA, reports Elizabeth Thompson ("No bidding war for U.S. spy agency: Big buyers won't say what they're paying for," Montreal Gazette, 21 June 2006). The secure telephones are replacing an earlier generation of STU-III secure telephones that were also bought from the United States. Users who are equipped with the phones can carry on an encrypted conversation with another person who has one of the phones that cannot (in practical terms) be decrypted by an eavesdropper. The units enable government ministers and high officials to discuss matters up to and including Top Secret Codeword classified material over the phone.

The U.S. uses the same kind of phones for its own secure conversations; they are very likely the best available. There is a risk involved in buying such equipment from another country, however. As the Gazette story suggests, it is not at all impossible that our close ally has put a "back door" in the phones (and the other communications security equipment) that it has sold to us—for that rainy day when it feels the need to know what the Canadian government is really thinking on some trade issue, or border security matter, or foreign policy question. The neat thing about having a back door into the system—from the NSA's point of view—is that it would enable the U.S. government, but nobody else, to listen in to Canada's "secure" conversations.

Of course we all know the U.S. government would never do that.

Britain was Canada's closest ally at the end of the Second World War, a closer ally than the U.S. is even now. But in 1947, the CBNRC (as CSE was then known) took over the production of cipher materials that formerly had been provided to Canada by the British government. They did so not because the British were incapable of producing strong cipher material but, as the History of CBNRC dryly noted, because "[the prior] arrangement did not guarantee the privacy of Canadian government classified communications."

I guess these days the government no longer requires a guarantee.