Saturday, June 22, 2013

Boundless Informant comes to Canada

NSA's Boundless Informant tool enables analysts to quickly assess where NSA's SIGINT is being collected.

Among other displays, the tool can produce "heatmaps" showing the relative intensity of collection in countries around the world, based on metadata records, with intensity ranging from red (most intense) to dark green (least intense). The map shown above is a detail from a Boundless Informant heatmap published by the Guardian showing the intensity of NSA collection of "digital network information" during March 2013.

What does this map say about NSA collection in Canada?

No numbers are provided for the intensity of collection in Canada, but the colour assigned to the country tells us a little. As you would expect, collection in Canada is much less intense than it is of major SIGINT targets such as Iran, Pakistan, India, and China. It is also much lower than collection in the United States itself. (NSA's collection of U.S. domestic metadata records may explain most of the collection shown in the United States.)

Collection in Russia, once by far the NSA's largest target, is surprisingly low, roughly on par with that in Brazil. Not all sources of collection are reported through Boundless Informant, however, so it is possible that the rankings would shift if all types of collection were reflected.

Mexico is the second most important SIGINT target in Latin America. (Sorry, Cuba, it looks like they're just not that into you anymore.)

And Canada is only very slightly below Mexico in the worldwide collection intensity rankings.

Although no numbers are attached to most countries, it seems reasonable to guess that Mexico is a fairly important SIGINT target for the NSA. The country has a population three times as large as Canada's; it borders the United States, and the two countries share an important economic relationship; it maintains an active diplomatic profile in the world, often working with the "non-aligned" countries, whose activities are of special intelligence interest; and the cross-border drug trade and illegal immigration issues make intelligence about Mexico especially interesting to the U.S. intelligence and law enforcement communities. Also, unlike Canada, Mexico has no agreement with the U.S. that is supposed to prevent the NSA from monitoring Mexican citizens.

So why does collection in Canada appear to be nearly as intense as it is in Mexico?

This is not a map showing the output of the Canadian and other allied SIGINT sites that feed the combined UKUSA intelligence effort (although the program can reportedly produce such maps). If it were based on collection sites, Britain, which plays a key role in monitoring international fiber optic traffic, would be much, much brighter than its current, only slightly brighter than Canada colour.

So why is Canada the colour that it is? A large part of the explanation, I'm guessing, lies in the collection by NSA of communications that cross back and forth between Canada and the United States. Because those communications pass into the United States, the U.S. may consider them to be both of special interest from a security and law enforcement perspective and fair game for collection. (It could also include material collected by Canadian agencies and made available to U.S. analysts.)

Several questions arise if this is the primary explanation for Canada's colour.
  • Does the Canadian government approve of this exception to the agreement against collection? Does the agreement explicitly provide for this exception? (Does the agreement actually exist in any practical manifestation at all? Is it just a convenient agreed fiction?)
  • Is the vast amount of internet traffic between Canadians and U.S.-based providers of internet services such as e-mail, social media, and data storage subject to collection and, at least potentially, analysis?
  • How much access to such intercepts does the Canadian government get? The prohibition against asking the U.S. to monitor Canadians in ways that it would not be legal for the Canadian government itself to do is not a prohibition against receiving information volunteered by the U.S., and former Solicitor General Wayne Easter has suggested that Canada routinely receives such data.


Blogger Pete said...

Hi Bill

Your well worded questions at the end also apply to Australia's relations with the US and presumably Canada. All buddies of the UKUSA club :)



July 01, 2013 6:08 am  

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