Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Allan Lawrence on CSE and speech recognition

A previous post noted some comments from olden times—the 1990s—about the threat to privacy posed by SIGINT agency speech-recognition capabilities.

Which reminded me of this extraordinary speech by former Progressive Conservative Solicitor General Allan Lawrence—one of the few cabinet ministers ever to tour CSE headquarters—which he delivered in the House of Commons more than 30 years ago, on March 16th, 1984:
There are other measures which are terribly absent from the [CSIS Act, which was then under debate] which should protect and concern us all. One that has not been referred to by any Hon. Member yet—and I want to speak about it in the very limited time I have available to me today—is the terrible lack of control and monitoring in regard to electronic eavesdropping in the country at the moment, and as certainly would be the case if the Bill were passed in its present form.

I am not contravening my oath of office in indicating some of these concerns. I am not contravening the Official Secrets Act in publicizing some of the things I want to publicize in the House today. Anything I intend to say here today has already been published in Canada by others. ...

Hundreds of sophisticated tape recorders are turning right now in Canada, recording conversations that have been activated by the use of certain code words or phrases which automatically turn them on.

The eavesdropping of conversations is one of the major and most efficient tools being used today in the battle against crime and the gathering of information of all sorts, both by public agencies and, I suspect, by private organizations. ...

I suspect, although I have no proof, that accountable, effective control, supervision or prohibition, as the case may be, is largely illusory in this country. There is simply too much of it going on both within and without the Government. ...

I am concerned that there is still at least one very large gap in this whole process over which neither the Minister nor this Bill seems to envisage any accountable control in any way whatsoever. The impression the Minister attempts to convey is that this Bill, in conjunction with Part VI of the Criminal Code which deals with criminal investigation, specifies that henceforth all legal authorizations for third party eavesdropping or the obtaining of information by electronic or other means will have to be judicially authorized. That quite definitely, quite seriously and quite dangerously is totally wrong.

We have a so called ultra secret agency in this country that quite closely works with, feeds into and extracts from both the huge National Security Agency's sprawling facilities and the computer complex in Fort George Mead [sic] in Maryland, Washington [sic], and also the large listening and cryptological centre in the United Kindgom [sic] that has been in the news lately because of certain spy and union problems.

Canada's agency is mainly operational here in the Ottawa area and is called the Communications Security Agency [sic], the CSE. ... In the scheme of things, it is located under the jurisdiction of the Department of National Defence, although it is never listed in the Estimates, never mentioned in any budgetary item in the House or any of its committees and rarely appears on departmental organizational charts. ...

The purpose of the three or more nation group is to monitor all telephone, telegraph, telex, microwave, or radio emission signals or messages anywhere in the world or in space, and they do it. Sensitive radio receivers tap microwave and satellite transmissions of telephone conversations, for instance, while a computer equipped with limited speech recognition capability quickly filters through thousands of tapes and intercepts by seizing on key words. It would not take too much imagination to believe that four triggering words would be 'diplomat, terrorist, bomb' and 'explosion'. I leave it to Members to think of some of the other trigger words. [In this section of the speech, Lawrence was drawing on a Globe and Mail article (Jonathan Chevreau, "Spy technology can outdo Big Brother," Globe and Mail, 23 December 1983]

Decoding devices and unscrambling gear are obviously an integral part of its facilities. These agencies, Canada's included, obviously not only listen to international wavelengths. By their nature, they have the potential to listen in to everything and anything that hits the airwaves and more, both outside and inside Canada. Computer data banking information is fed by telephone facilities. Telephonic communications are carried on by microwave. Microwaves are intercepted by this agency.

I am not arguing that these facilities for both security and economic purposes are not necessary or useful. I am arguing that this Bill does not seem to recognize either that ministerial knowledge or judicial approval that is designed to lull us into the comfortable belief that all is well and being controlled, authorized and monitored.

There is a terrible potential for abuse in the CSE and its allied and international agencies in other countries. They can, and I am convinced they do, listen in, break into, decodify and store conversations of people in this country with no independent control, supervision, or monitoring.

In conclusion, may I say that at a time when more and more personal, private, governmental and commercial communication and transmission is being handled through the airwaves, including easy access to data banks, it is simply appalling that this Bill, which is designed to allay our fears respecting some elements of personal privacy and civil liberties and at the same time provide an efficient framework for our protection from foreign influences, both hostile and friendly, ignores this rapidly expanding capability.
The "limited speech recognition capability" available at Lawrence's time was very, very limited indeed, but the efforts being made to produce more effective systems were very real.

Just a couple of years later, for example, Aviation Week (14 December 1987) reported that the "USAF's Rome Air Development Center plans to develop an architecture to automatically process up to 150 audio channels in real time for human communications intelligence analysis. The effort will use the center's automatic speech processing capabilities including speaker identification, language identification, keyword recognition and speech enhancement."


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