As economic espionage and hacking become growing threats to the West, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service is stepping up efforts to persuade businesses to safeguard secrets deemed vital to national interests.
CSIS's corporate-outreach program, which started in the 1990s, largely fell by the wayside during the years after the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, when fighting terrorism absorbed nearly all the spy service's energies.
But emerging threats - including shadowy-but-powerful hacker networks based in China - are sparking a renewed federal interest in forging partnerships between the corporate and intelligence worlds.
"CSIS has and continues to speak with various corporations in Canada on potential security threats, which may have an impact on national security interests," CSIS spokeswoman Isabelle Scott said in an e-mailed response to questions from The Globe and Mail. "CSIS alerts firms to common covert methods used by those who may target them."
She did not elaborate on which hostile entities may be targeting Canada, and added that any information shared during briefing sessions with corporations is confidential.
Cyberattacks, however, have emerged as a major threat. China-based hackers in particular have forced Western corporations and governments into alliances to protect shared interests.
For example, Google, the multibillion-dollar high-tech company based in California, has lately teamed with the U.S. government's ultra-secretive National Security Agency to improve ways of preventing Google's state-of-the-art Internet services from being breached.
The New York Times reported that U.S. investigators suspect attacks against Google have emanated from computers in certain Chinese postsecondary schools, though Beijing denies knowledge of this.
Britain and Australia have both recently launched cybersecurity operations centres meant to help insulate their own national secrets from spying or attack. The Canadian government, meantime, lags behind in the cybersecurity world and is still trying to draft a formal federal strategy.
CSIS corporate-outreach efforts amount to one behind-the-scenes way of addressing the threat. The spy service has long suggested that states once fixated on stealing military or political secrets are now mostly after economic targets. Two years ago, CSIS's leadership said Chinese entities are the leading spy threat to Canada.
Although Canada is relatively small compared with the U.S., intelligence officials have said that leading companies in several sectors - aerospace, agriculture, biotech, oil, military and communications - make it attractive to foreign spies.
Some of the CSIS outreach takes the form of information sessions in which agents start conversations with officials from corporations that have been spied on or fear they are at risk. Briefing sessions "allow organizations to gain a better appreciation of the risks that they may be facing and describe steps they should consider in assessing their vulnerabilities," said Ms. Scott, the CSIS spokeswoman.
By law, the spy service cannot veer far from its mandate of protecting Canadian lives and interests from serious security threats. But "while counterterrorism continues to be a priority for CSIS, in the post-9/11 world, espionage and foreign-influenced activities against Canada and its interests remain serious threats to the security of Canada," she said.
Another line of defence is a secretive "signals" intelligence agency, the Communications Security Establishment. To the extent it is known, the CSE - which has close ties to the NSA in the United States - has a reputation for its ability to eavesdrop in foreign countries, tapping trunk lines or sucking satellite signals out of the air.
But the CSE also has the mandate of protecting the federal government's computer systems from being breached.