Friday, October 11, 2013

More on economic intelligence gathering

Interesting discussion of what Canada may have been up to in Brazil here (Erica Alini, "Canada, Brazil and how snoops are threatening free trade," Maclean's, 10 October 2013):
Why on earth were we snooping (or trying to snoop) on Brazil’s Mining and Energy Ministry of all things?

The hypotheses that have been floated so far are (a) that we were trying to steal information for the benefit of Canadian mining and energy firms and (b) that we were after intelligence meant for government eyes only — maybe a useful backgrounder for trade negotiations.

[Wesley] Wark dismissed both of them. Hypothesis (a), he says, is implausible. Canadian intelligence agencies do not share information with private businesses — and it wouldn’t make any sense if they did, he told Econowatch. Private corporations in liberal democracies are independent beings, often with massive operations and headquarters in several countries and free to leave and re-incorporate somewhere else if they so wish. Why would a government trust these companies with information that could land it in serious trouble if intentionally or accidentally spilled? Second, big multinationals are quite capable of gathering their own information about market conditions and opportunities at home and abroad — it’s called, not by chance, business intelligence.
There's a lot of truth to these points, I think, but the Canadian economy is hardly a laissez-faire free-market neo-liberal Arcadia.

Canada had and to some extent still does have what are in effect state-owned businesses in such fields as nuclear technology and wheat sales, to name two that have been explicitly linked to economic intelligence-gathering in the past. The Canadian government also provides monetary or other assistance to a number of favoured industrial sectors, most notably the oil and other resource extraction sectors, but also the aerospace and defence sectors, whose success it considers crucial to Canada's economic future. Other industries, such as shipbuilding, would not exist without government support. Trade commissioners are posted to Canadian embassies to help Canadian businesses sell abroad. A Crown corporation, the Canadian Commercial Corporation, exists for the sole purpose of brokering and facilitating export sales by Canadian companies.

So, no, the Canadian government is not going to hand out highly classified signals intelligence reports to every Canadian company or multinational company with operations in Canada that is looking to sell abroad, but is it really that implausible that a helpful word might get whispered in a relevant ear on occasion when the stakes are especially high?
The hypothesis that CSEC collected information useful for Ottawa in some kind of future, hypothetical trade negotiation seems less of a pie-in-the-sky story, because there is some evidence that CSEC fetched just such intelligence in the mid-1990s. Wark, though, is unpersuaded. Nothing, he says, indicates that CSEC has been up to similar deeds since 9/11, when the agency acquired a heavy focus on global terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and conflicts zone [sic] where Canadian troops were engaged.
Hmm. I don't think I would go as far as to say nothing indicates that CSE has been up to such activities since 9/11, but it is certainly true that 9/11 did re-order the priorities of the Canadian intelligence community rather dramatically.

Perhaps not to the extent that CSE can no longer walk and chew gum at the same time, however.
Wark’s theory is that Canada was doing a favour to U.S. National Security Agency, a favour we felt we owed the Americans by virtue of our membership in the Five-Eyes, an intelligence alliance of Canada, the U.S., the U.K., Australia and New Zealand.
So we can walk and chew gum, as long as it's a favour for the NSA?

The five agencies do work extremely closely together, sharing personnel, technology, and facilities, dividing up tasks among themselves, and acting largely under the leadership of the NSA, although each agency also pursues its own national priorities. The fact that CSE was freely discussing the Brazil operation with its partner agencies, and enlisting the direct aid of NSA's Tailored Access Operations division, is a pretty strong indication that the information Canada was seeking in this case was not for the purpose of giving specific Canadian companies an advantage -- or at least not in those activities that might involve competition with U.S., British, Australian, or New Zealand firms. The information sought may well have been of a more generally useful nature to all of the partners, such as information on the extent and exploitability of Brazilian oil and gas reserves.

Given the current Canadian government's extraordinary and single-minded dedication to expanding exports of Canadian oil, if this kind of information was indeed the goal of the operation then I'm not convinced that the tasking came from NSA rather than the Canadian government itself. But who knows?
And why, then, did the Americans want to snoop on Brazil’s mining sector? Probably, just because they could, says Wark. Metadata collection analysis, which makes it possible to get a picture of the volumes and networks of telephone, email and Internet traffic across the globe, has given so called signals-intelligence agencies such as CSEC and the NSA enormous powers. The NSA, in particular, has amassed tremendous capabilities, and it has shown a propensity to test the limits of its new tools. “They probably weren’t interested in the content [of whatever they would find at the Brazilian Mining and Energy Ministry],” says Wark, “they wanted to see what they could do.”
I have a great deal of respect for Wesley Wark's expertise on intelligence issues. And I am entirely sincere in saying that, not engaging in ironic throat-clearing leading up to the obligatory "but".


Everyone is so busy fighting the War on Terror, etc. that they don't have time for economic intelligence-gathering, but they do have time to screw around in the Brazilian Ministry of Mines and Energy's communications just for the hell of it?



Blogger P/K said...

Interesting points of view. Maybe the mining and resources issue got a higher priority in Canada, I think it wouldn't be that bad when everything isn't so focussed on terrorism anymore. But wouldn't it be possible the spying on the mining department was just a case study, just to show what is possible? Unfortunately it's hard to get the proper context as only parts of those presentations are released.

October 12, 2013 4:05 pm  
Blogger Bill Robinson said...

Well, the presentation shows how the Olympia program either was used or could be used to assist "target development" (choosing who/what to monitor) and "access development" (gaining access to communications and files) at the MME. It appears to use real data, but the parts of the presentation that we've seen don't describe the communications content or computer files that may have been collected, so we don't know for certain whether anything was done beyond the initial network mapping and collection of phone number and model information. However, the wording on the "Moving Forward" slide strongly suggests to me that the operation was not hypothetical -- it talks about a BPoA analysis that "has" started and other activities that "are" happening, not further steps that could be taken once the Olympia analysis was complete. It's not impossible that a hypothetical case might be worded this way, but it strikes me as unlikely.

October 12, 2013 11:02 pm  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home