Wednesday, April 18, 2012

In the news: Canada's cyber-spooks

Detailed article about CSE by Postmedia journalist Jeff Davis yesterday (Jeff Davis, "Canada's cyber-spooks network CSEC is all grown up — but who watches the watchers?" Postmedia News, 17 April 2012) with some interesting -- but also some questionable -- information therein.

Some quotes and comments:
  • "Where some departments face cuts of 10 per cent, CSEC will be pinched by just two per cent this year and the agency will see no layoffs."

    If true, this must reflect either a change in accounting (possibly as a result of becoming a stand-alone agency?) or a very last-minute cut, as the 2012-13 Main Estimates indicate that CSE is to spend $387 million this year -- an increase of about six percent over last year's planned expenditure of $367 million. 
  • "In the ensuing decade [since 9/11],... its budget has gone to $350 million in 2012 from $140 million in 2001."

    As noted above, planned spending in 2011-12 was actually $367 million and planned spending in 2012-13 is $388 million. In 2000-01 CSE's budget was $97 million -- or the equivalent of about $125 million in today's dollars by my calculation.
  • "For decades, CSEC was a section of the Department of National Defence, with its budget, activities and reports kept secret. That is until it recently became a stand-alone agency. This change forces it to disclose its budgets and provide regular public reports, like all other government agencies."

    CSE's budget has been reported as a separate item within the DND Estimates since the mid to late 1990s; those documents have also provided a page or two of highly sanitized reporting on CSE's plans and activities since that time. It will be interesting to see if CSE's transition to stand-alone status leads to any more-detailed public reporting.
  • "In November 2011, the organization changed its name from the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) to Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), in accordance with government regulations."

    The name change took effect in September 2007, and technically the change affects only the agency's "applied title", which it uses for its public identity. Its legal title remains the Communications Security Establishment.
  • "...a massive CSEC complex is now being built in Ottawa at a cost of $880 million."

    And that figure doesn't include the cost of Pod 1 of the new headquarters. The combined total could be more than $1 billion. The 2011-12 Report on Plans and Priorities estimated the cost of the LTAP at $992 million. I'm hoping the next Report on Plans and Priorities will provide an updated figure on the overall projected cost. In the meantime, we'll have to do with the combined cost estimate in the 2010-11 Departmental Performance Report: $1.065 billion.
  • "Besides housing the three most powerful supercomputers in Canada..."

    [Falls off chair.] Whoa, where did that little tidbit come from? This is the most interesting -- and new -- information in the entire article!
  • "...the campus will be outfitted with a high-tech eavesdropping array, the nature of which is secret."

    This is the second most interesting information in the article. It wouldn't make sense to put a radio intercept facility in the middle of Ottawa, and communications satellites are rapidly declining in importance as targets. Furthermore, CFS Leitrim, which is just south of the city, already handles those jobs. So, if this is supposed to be some sort of operational intercept system, as opposed to a training or R&D system, then my guess would lean towards something for tapping fibre optics. Once upon a time a lot of communications traffic between Europe and Asia used to pass through Canada on the Trans-Canada Microwave System. Does the same thing happen now that fibre optics carry most of the world's long-haul traffic? That might provide a tempting target for the headphone brigade. Beyond that, there is always that Internet thing that former Chief Adams used to talk about mastering. The first step to mastering that has got to be examining its contents. Can you call an Internet tapping complex an "eavesdropping array"?
  • "'They are capable of doing billions of interceptions per day,' Juneau-Katsuya said. 'They can intercept literally everything that breathes and moves Canada wide.'"

    Well, maybe not literally.
  • "CSEC is thought to have played a role in catching Navy Sub.-Lt. Jeffrey Paul Delisle..."

    Aw, c'mon, don't leave us hanging like that! Who thinks CSE played such a role? And in what way?
  • "CSEC's mandate, however, strictly prohibits it from intercepting transmissions between Canadians on home soil."

    I wouldn't be so sure about that. Section 273.64 of the National Defence Act, which forbids the targeting of Canadians or persons in Canada, applies only to the first two elements of CSE's three-part mandate. The third element, which enables the provision of "technical and operational assistance to federal law enforcement and security agencies in the performance of their lawful duties" is subject to no such limitation. If CSIS (or the RCMP, or some little-known agency nobody has even heard of) can legally target you, CSE can help.
  • "CSEC had no independent oversight until 1996, when the position of Communications Security Establishment Commissioner was struck."

    Struck? In the context of positions doesn't that mean eliminated?
  • "'In all annual reports to date, the CSE commissioner has said that for the activities reviewed, CSEC has acted lawfully,' CSEC spokesman Adrian Simpson said in an email."

    This is true, but only because successive CSE Commissioners chose to give the government approximately seven years to resolve an ongoing dispute over the proper application of CSE's statutory mandate -- a dispute that was only resolved last year, according to the Commissioner's 2010-11 Annual Report. [Update 30 August 2013: The Commissioner's latest report (2012-13) states that he was unable to determine whether one activity undertaken some years ago was lawful or not. Also, I was incorrect in thinking that the dispute over CSE's mandate had been resolved. The Commissioner is still waiting for the government to act on its pledge to amend the National Defence Act.]


[Update 23 April 2012: CSE Director of Communications Jean Plamondon replies to Davis's article with more bland -- and slightly misleading -- reassurances. I personally would feel more reassured if they'd leave out the misleading bits.]

[Update 26 April 2012: Added last year's estimate of the cost of the Long-Term Accommodation Project -- $992 million.]

[Update 5 May 2012: Also added the most recent estimate for the combined LTAP/MTAP cost in the Departmental Performance Report -- $1.065 billion.]

[Update 26 May 2013: Removed concerns I had expressed about the "three most powerful supercomputers" claim. At this point, I'm pretty sure that information is (or was at that time) correct.]

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