Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Data storage, surveillance, and privacy

University of Ottawa professor Roland Paris writes on the approach of the total surveillance society (Roland Paris, "The total surveillance society approaches," Ottawa Citizen, 22 December 2011):
We will soon reach the point where governments will have the capacity, should they wish it, to monitor, record, and permanently archive the communications and activities of their citizens from birth to death. That’s the sobering message of a new Brookings Institution report by John Villasenor, an engineering professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“Within the next few years,” he writes, “it will be technically possible and financially feasible for authoritarian governments to record nearly everything that is said or done within their borders — every phone conversation, electronic message, social media interaction, the movements of nearly every person and vehicle, and video from every street corner.”

The machinery for such monitoring — from intercepting electronic communications to recording images of faces and licence plates in public spaces — already exists and is rapidly improving. Yet, it is the plummeting cost of data storage that makes total surveillance a real possibility.

Consider this: The audio for all the telephone calls made by a single person over the course of one year could be recorded using roughly 3.3 gigabytes of storage space. [...]

Some might dismiss this vision as a dystopian fantasy. But why wouldn’t countries with records of using every tool at their disposal to monitor their citizens also take advantage of these new surveillance and data storage capacities as they become available? And isn’t it true that even in liberal democracies with strong privacy laws, including Canada, we have also seen a gradual shrinking of private space and pressures for more ubiquitous surveillance?

The main benefit of Villasenor’s report — like that of other stylized visions of the future, including George Orwell’s — may not be its specific predictions, but rather, its ability to shock us into seeing real-time trends that might otherwise go unnoticed, including in our own society. Indeed, it speaks to the importance of a different kind of heightened vigilance: not of our fellow citizens, but of our right to remain largely hidden from the constant gaze of the state.
The data storage capabilities are certainly on the way.

CSE is currently building the "largest repository of Top Secret information in Canada", including a data centre that, if its apparent size is any indication, could contain as much as one third of the storage capacity of the massive NSA data centre currently under construction at Camp Williams, Utah (which probably will store exabytes or even yottabytes of data).

There is no reason to think that Canadians will be the primary subjects of the data that CSE will be storing (although if the adjacent CSIS will also be a major user of the facility, and that's not necessarily unlikely, data on Canadians could comprise a major part of its contents).

Fortunately, we have the Office of the CSE Commissioner to assure Canadians that CSE does not violate Canadian law, including such privacy protections as exist in Canadian law. For the most part the Commissioner's annual reports have provided important reassurance in this respect.

These reports would be a heck of a lot more reassuring, however, if the government would finally get off its ass and act to resolve the dispute that has been going on between successive CSE Commissioners and the Minister of National Defence for at least SEVEN YEARS over the legality of some of CSE's surveillance activities.

The Commissioner's 2009-2010 annual report provided the welcome news that a resolution to the dispute was finally in sight: the Minister of National Defence had promised the Commissioner that "clarification of ambiguities and other amendments to the [National Defence Act] are a legislative priority."

Unfortunately, the Harper government has a lot of priorities. The MND's promise was made sometime in the year that ended in March 2010. Since that time, the government has introduced at least 90 bills in parliament.

Let's just say it's a good thing that these guys don't consider the privacy of Canadians a NON-priority.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

CSE leaves DND

As this blog speculated earlier, CSE has left DND to become a stand-alone agency of the government of Canada!

The change was very quietly made early on the morning of November 16th. The "Place in Government" section of the CSE webpage has the details:
The Government of Canada has taken the decision to establish CSEC as a stand-alone agency. This is an administrative change that established the Chief, CSEC as a deputy head and accounting officer, who reports directly to the Minister of National Defence as of 16 November 2011.

Questions and Answers

What has changed?

The Chief, CSEC, now reports directly to the Minister of National Defence.

What was the reporting structure before the change?

Before the change, CSEC was reporting through two deputy ministers: the National Security Advisor (NSA) on policy and operational issues and the Deputy Minister (DM) of National Defence on administrative and financial matters.

Will the change affect CSEC’s current mandate?

No, this is principally an administrative change that will not affect CSEC’s mission, mandate and operations.

What will be the status of CSEC after the change?

CSEC will be established as a stand-alone agency within the Minister of National Defence portfolio. For the purposes of the Financial Administration Act (FAA), CSEC will be designated as a department by being added to column 1 of Schedule 1.1, as a branch of the federal public administration, through an Order-in-Council. This will also establish the Chief, CSEC as deputy head and accounting officer reporting directly to the Minister of National Defence.
As I understand it, this means that the agency will remain within the Minister of National Defence's portfolio, but it will no longer be a part of the Department of National Defence.

Aficionados of bureaucratic procedure will appreciate the fact that in order to make the transfer the government felt it had to make subsection 132(1) of the Public Service Employment Act apply to the CSE for exactly two seconds, during which time Order in Council P.C. 2011-1305 transferred control and supervision of the Communications Security Establishment and the Communications Security Establishment Internal Services Unit (whatever the heck that is) from DND to CSE itself.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Morse: No longer just for dinosaurs...

Morse code has long been written off as part of radio - and radio intelligence - history. But now we learn from the Communications and Electronics Newsletter (Vol. 55) that the MOS Formerly Known As 291 has resumed teaching morse to some of its members. That's right, the dits is back:
...the role of Morse code as an emerging player in the communications world is again capturing the imagination of the Comm Rsch trade. Once considered moribund in the communication world, Morse code appears to be staging its comeback. An example of this lies in Toshiba's 2008 development of a handheld, thumb-operated communications device named "Clique", which uses only three keys to produce Morse code for sending text messages - a method rapidly increasing in popularity in Asia.

With evidence of such devices, it is not a surprise that the age-old technology has found its way back onto the Comm Rsch radar. Trade advisors and senior personnel have recognized Morse Code's re-emergence and quickly approved the re-establishment and maintenance of its training. The result is an updated Morse Code training program that is now available to Comm Rsch personnel awaiting Phase II training. As with the new ASA course, the initial iteration of this full-time five and a half month Morse Course (Serial 0001) commenced in January of this year.
Forget about the Toshiba "Clique" thing. That was some kind of hoax or April Fool's joke. But the Morse training course is, as far as I can tell, serious.

Friday, December 09, 2011

November 2011 CSE staff size


(If you click through on the link and get a different figure, it's probably because the Canada Public Service Agency has updated its website; they update the numbers once a month.)

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Tutte tut

The Paroxysms blog has posted some interesting documents on the naming of the Tutte Institute obtained under the Access to Information Act. (Archived copy here.)

The Tutte Institute is CSE's classified cryptologic and data-mining research institute (previous post here), which is named after Bletchley Park veteran William Tutte. The institute was established in 2009 but officially opened and formally named the Tutte Institute for Mathematics and Computing in September 2011.

Among the most interesting bits in the released documents is a list of the individuals who were considered for the name of the institute and the criteria used for judging among them.

Eight individuals were considered, including four who are still alive. The latter four presumably received only cursory consideration as one rather crucial criterion was that the individual must no longer be living, and there is no indication in the documents that consideration was ever given to rendering non-deceased candidates compliant in this respect.

But here's what I find really interesting: Gilbert de B. Robinson was not one of the candidates considered!

Robinson -- no relation incidentally -- was a professor of mathematics at the University of Toronto. He was president of the Canadian Mathematical Society from 1953 to 1957 and served as managing editor of the Canadian Journal of Mathematics for 30 years.

He might also be called the father of Canadian cryptanalysis. He and colleague H.S.M. Coxeter were the Canadian mathematicians asked in 1941 to investigate how a Canadian cryptanalytic agency might be established. It was they who recommended that Herbert Yardley, the Examination Unit's first director, be recruited by Ottawa. Coxeter remained at the U. of T. during the war, but Robinson went on to become one of the Examination Unit's original employees, and he also served as its first (and only) Canadian director, albeit in an acting capacity. (More on the Examination Unit here.) He was awarded an M.B.E. for his wartime services, and returned to Toronto after the war, retiring in 1971. He died in 1992.

I want to be clear here. William Tutte was a distinguished mathematician and cryptanalyst, and the judges who chose to name CSE's institute in his honour may well have made the best decision. It certainly can't be characterized as a unjustifiable decision.

What astounds me is not that Robinson wasn't chosen, although if it had been my decision he would have been. What astounds me is that he wasn't even considered.

What the heck was that about?

[Update 8 January 2012:
Robinson was also the Canadian cryptanalyst who questioned Soviet cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko following his defection in September 1945.]

[Update 1 February 2012:

A further note on Robinson's post-Gouzenko role:
Gilbert Robinson, who had presided over the dismantling of the Examination Unit, was now asked to draft a "blueprint" for a revised code- and cipher-breaking team with all the bells and whistles. This he did, in four tightly typed pages of foolscap, calling for renewed agreements on the exchange of raw traffic such that "intercepts in a given language" could be obtained. He suggested they should start up the French section again under Sonia Morawetz, a twenty-two-year-old Czechoslovakian-born woman who had shown a flair for cipher-breaking. "Canada should stand on her own feet with regard to personnel from now on," Robinson stressed, underlining the words. "There is ample cryptographic talent and experience available here." (John Bryden, Best-Kept Secret: Canadian Secret Intelligence in the Second World War, Lester Publishing, 1993, p. 278)
Kurt Jensen's book Cautious Beginnings: Canadian Foreign Intelligence, 1939-51, UBC Press, 2008 (p. 132) mentions the same report.]

Saturday, December 03, 2011

La Salle Academy update

I've made a few changes to the post on CSE's first headquarters building, the La Salle Academy.

My thanks to Mark Weiler for information about the La Salle Academy's buildings during the 1940s.