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Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) Chief John Adams tours CSEC's new headquarter in Ottawa on Dec. 21, 2010. (DAVE CHAN/Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)
Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) Chief John Adams tours CSEC's new headquarter in Ottawa on Dec. 21, 2010. (DAVE CHAN/Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)

Top secret institute comes out of the shadows to recruit top talent Add to ...

It boasts some of the top math minds in the country, it’s looking to recruit more, and you still won’t find its name listed among any universities.

The Tutte Institute for Mathematics and Computing is like a school for spies – a government-backed “classified research institute” that exists to entice academics who can help the government create and crack codes in the service of national security.

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The federal government has actually employed a small stable of arms-length academic cryptographers for several years now, but this summer it opted to redouble and rebrand the effort. In doing so, Ottawa has stepped up its quiet drive to lure some of the smartest PhD-calibre mathematicians away from ivory towers and into applied government work.

The move comes as Western governments everywhere grapple with foreign hackers who are proving relentless in plundering proprietary secrets of all kinds – a state of affairs that some observers liken to a historically unprecedented transfer of wealth. No institution is immune: Networked computers belonging to a host of government agencies have lately suffered a series of embarrassing breaches.

Previously known to select few mathematicians as the Cryptologic Research Institute, the think tank is the creation of an ultra-secretive federal agency, the Communications Security Establishment Canada. The CSEC has two main jobs: first, to spy on foreign communications for information about threats, and second, to shield government data from prying eyes.

While this “signals-intelligence” agency has its own stable of hundreds of code makers and code crackers, it often finds itself needing periodic infusions of cutting-edge academic work to stay current. So, two years ago, the CSEC hired Hugh Williams, who some describe as a “rock star” mathematician at the University of Calgary, to lead the effort to put together the Tutte Institute. Last year, the spy agency built a home for the institute on its sprawling Ottawa campus.

Now comes a public profile – something it never had before – as the Tutte Institute seeks to bolsters its ranks beyond its roughly 20 top-calibre researchers and 15 full-time staff. It wants to lure “the best minds in mathematical and computational research,” according to an announcement posted on the CSEC website.

The goal? “Solve some of the most challenging and intricate problems of our day,” the announcement says. It adds that the solutions “have real-life implications for the security of Canadians and of our Allies.”

Even the name is crafted to suggest why nation states such as Canada have a powerful interest in cryptography.

In the 1940s, William Tutte, a math genius, figured out ways to spy on encrypted, high-level Nazi communications, a contribution so profound that some observers now credit him and his British colleagues for helping hasten the end of the Second World War. After the war, Mr. Tutte moved to Canada and had a distinguished academic career at the University of Waterloo.

Mathematicians who aspire to join the Tutte Institute are vetted by national-security agencies. Dual-nationals face additional hurdles if they hail from countries whose loyalties are in question. And the institute says it is happy to take professors on sabbaticals – for a week, a month, or even a few years.

The work is classified because the CSEC is partnering with British and U.S. spy agencies and their own feeder schools – meaning some of the academics who join the Tutte Institute may be exposed to sneak peaks of highly sensitive technologies.

Canada is a relatively small player in cryptology, but the Tutte Institute is intended to help the CSEC punch far above its weight. The goal is to “obtain the highest possible return on Canada’s research partnerships within the allied cryptologic research community,” the statement says.

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