Friday, October 13, 2023

The Seven Ages of Canadian SIGINT

In July 2023, I presented a paper titled "The Seven Ages of Canadian SIGINT" to the 2023 annual conference of the North American Society for Intelligence History. I've done some minor updates and revisions to the paper since then (and it remains a work in progress), but I'm happy to share it here with others who may be interested.

I've reproduced the paper's introduction (minus a couple of endnotes) below. The full paper can be downloaded as a PDF here.


The Seven Ages of Canadian SIGINT

Canada's signals intelligence (SIGINT) program has long served as the country's primary contribution to and justification for membership in the Five Eyes intelligence community. Deep integration with the SIGINT organizations of the United Kingdom and the United States in particular runs as a common thread throughout the history of the program, but Canada's national SIGINT effort has evolved in response to changing national priorities, availability of resources, legal authorities, and technological developments, as well as partnership considerations. This paper outlines the development of Canada's national SIGINT agency, the Communications Security Establishment (known as CBNRC, the Communications Branch of the National Research Council, from 1946 to 1975), and its predecessors, describing seven stages of its evolution from 1941 to the present. These comprise: the Second World War origins of Canadian national SIGINT; CBNRC's post-war creation and search for a role; the agency's mid-Cold War focus on Arctic SIGINT; the effort to revitalize CSE during the 1980s; the post-Cold War interregnum; the rise of the Internet and the Global War on Terror era; and CSE's 2019 transformation into a cyber operations agency.

A single paper can provide only an overview – little more than a sketch map – of the many significant changes that Canadian SIGINT has undergone over this more than 80-year period. Such a map is also limited by the large regions of that history that remain classified by the Canadian government and thus inaccessible to public researchers. In this respect, we don’t necessarily even know what may be missing. 

On the other hand, some regions are already reasonably well mapped. Much of the documentation on the Second World War origins of the Canadian SIGINT program has been declassified, along with some on its early Cold War evolution, and scholarship has built an increasingly detailed picture of developments during those periods, although it is fair to say that significant gaps remain.

Attempts to examine later periods are much scarcer, but useful documentation relating to those periods is beginning to be released. The efforts of Alan Barnes and the Canadian Foreign Intelligence History Project (CFIHP) are especially notable in this regard. Many of the documents cited in this paper were obtained through the CFIHP.

Open sources are sometimes also of help. Because its capabilities are constrained by factors like radio propagation characteristics, computational power, and numbers of personnel, SIGINT is much more susceptible to open-source investigation than human intelligence. When an intercept station was built, where it is located, and what kind of antennas it has can reveal a lot about SIGINT targets and capabilities. 

Canada’s long integration with the SIGINT programs of its major allies the United States and the United Kingdom is also helpful, as information revealed about those programs may tell us a lot about Canada’s program too. Leaked information, although usually incomplete and sometimes inaccurate or misleading, can also fill crucial gaps in the map, at least tentatively.

Drawing on all these sources, it is possible to sketch a rough map of the entire Canadian SIGINT program, albeit with notable blank spots. A map so constructed is more descriptive than explanatory. With only limited access to the documentary record, it is harder to determine why decisions were made than to detect their effects in the physical world. But, for all its limitations, such a map should prove useful to readers seeking to better understand the nature and role of the Canadian SIGINT program and the major trends and developments during its history, and it could help them to orient their own research, place information in context, and better define areas that may be of further interest. That’s the purpose I hope this paper will serve. In my own research I often find myself immersed in minor details of Canada’s SIGINT history.  Much more rarely do I pull back and try to examine the bigger picture those details portray. In that respect, writing this paper has been useful for me at least.

Download the full paper here.

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Call for papers: Canadian intelligence history


"Canadian Intelligence History at the Crossroads," a conference on the history of Canadian intelligence activities and organizations, will be held at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa on 3-5 October 2024. 

The following is the call for papers issued by the conference organizing committee:


In partnership with the Greg Centre for War and Society, the North American Society for Intelligence History (NASIH), and the Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies, we are proud to announce a conference on Canadian intelligence history in the fall of 2024. The conference is timed to reflect on a landmark change in Canadian intelligence practice. The year 2024 will mark the 40th anniversary of the birth of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).

We are soliciting individual paper, panel, and roundtable proposals on any relevant aspect of Canadian intelligence history, including the broader societal context, relationships with allied partners, and comparative studies.

Each paper proposal should include both a 250-word abstract and a one-page CV that highlights relevant knowledge. A panel proposal should include: a panel outline (that includes the chair, commentator, and three paper titles); three abstract proposals of 250 words each; and a one-page CV from all participants. All documents should be included in one e-mail. A roundtable proposal should include four to six speakers. Each speaker should provide a title and a 100-word abstract. A one-page CV for each participant must also be included. All of this must be contained in one e-mail. Please e-mail all proposals to Dr. Steve Hewitt at Proposals will be considered starting in January 2024.

The conference will also include sessions devoted to intelligence history scholarship by undergraduate and graduate students. Interested students are encouraged to submit individual paper proposals to include a 500-word abstract and a one-page letter of reference from a member of their department. Proposals for student papers should be e-mailed to Dr. Timothy Sayle at by June 30, 2024. Student participants will be notified by early September 2024 if their papers have been selected.