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.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just passing thru:--

One backdoor? Aren't you forgetting Israel?

September 14, 2006 4:29 pm  

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