The head of Canada’s electronic eavesdropping agency, which is alleged to have spied on Brazil, says all foreign-intelligence gathering activities carried out by Communications Security Establishment Canada are conducted within the law laid down by this country’s Parliament.
CSEC chief John Forster was speaking for the first time since a Brazilian TV station alleged that the agency carried out economic espionage against Brazil’s government.
This is based on leaked documents first obtained by former U.S. National Security Agency contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden.
“Our first mandate, our foreign signals intelligence role, is certainly being talked about – a lot – in the media right now,” Mr. Forster told a conference on technology and government in Ottawa Wednesday.
“Because of the classified nature of our work, I am sure you can appreciate that I can’t say much. [But] everything that CSE does in terms of foreign intelligence follows Canadian law,” he said.
On Oct. 7, the Brazilian news program Fantastico made public documents from the trove acquired by Mr. Snowden. They included a slide presentation that appears to show CSEC was surveying the telecommunications of the Brazilian Ministry of Mines and Energy – a revelation that has sparked outrage.
Mr. Forster told the audience at the Government Technology Exhibition and Conference that a watchdog reviews all CSEC activity.
“Everything we do, and I mean everything we do, is reviewed by an independent CSE commissioner. He and his office have full access to all records, systems and staff to ensure that we follow all Canadian laws and that we respect Canadians’ privacy.”
The CSEC chief, as the Harper government has in recent days, took pains to assure the crowd that no Canadians were targeted. He did not address the question of why the Canadian government is spying on a Western ally.
“I can tell you that we do not target Canadians at home or abroad in our foreign intelligence activities, nor do we target anyone in Canada. In fact, it’s prohibited by law. Protecting the privacy of Canadians is our most important principle.”
Coincidentally, Mr. Forster devoted part of his speech to the risks that foreign powers may be spying on Canada.
“More than 100 countries possess the human technology and financial resources to conduct cyber-operations on a persistent basis to collect intelligence, disrupt or in some cases damage IT infrastructure,” he told the audience.
Separately, records show that CSEC, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police participate in classified briefings for this country’s energy companies. The twice-annual meetings are not secret; the Department of Natural Resources issues public reports that make reference to the briefings.
The meetings appear to be more about defence than offence. There’s no evidence that CSEC or CSIS are passing on intelligence gleaned by economic espionage.
Jean Paul Duval, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, said it’s standard practice for security agencies to discuss how to better protect sensitive infrastructure from threats, adding that these meetings became commonplace following the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States.
A copy of the latest meeting agenda, from May 23, 2013, provided by the Department of Natural Resources, shows presentations by CSIS on “cyber security threats,” one by the RCMP called “Inside Threat at the Royal Canadian Navy” and a case study of the theft of copper from businesses that deal with metals. The meeting took place at the CSIS offices in Ottawa’s east end. A copy of a 2007 agenda shows that a senior military officer and a Mountie briefed businesses on criminal activities and security in Canada’s North.
A CSEC spokesman said the agency will “occasionally attend to share relevant information with security cleared representatives regarding cyber security threats pertaining to the protection of Canada’s energy infrastructure and sector.”