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.


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