The U.S. National Security Agency has been trying to map the communications traffic of corporations around the world, and a classified document reveals that at least two of Canada's largest companies are included.
A 2012 presentation by a U.S. intelligence analyst, a copy of which was obtained by The Globe and Mail, includes a list of corporate networks that names Royal Bank of Canada and Rogers Communications Inc.
The presentation, titled "Private Networks: Analysis, Contextualization and Setting the Vision," is among the NSA documents taken by former contractor Edward Snowden. It was obtained by The Globe from a confidential source.
Canada's biggest bank and its largest wireless carrier are on a list of 15 entities that are visible in a drop-down menu on one of the presentation's 40 pages. It shows part of an alphabetical list of entries beginning with the letter "R" that also includes two U.K.-headquartered companies – Rolls Royce Marine and Rio Tinto – and U.S.-based RigNet, among other global firms involved in telecom, finance, oil and manufacturing.
The document does not say what data the NSA has collected about these firms, or spell out the agency's objective. A comparison of this document with previous Snowden leaks suggests it may be a preliminary step in broad efforts to identify, study and, if deemed necessary, "exploit" organizations' internal communication networks.
Christopher Parsons, a researcher at the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, who reviewed the leaked document with The Globe, said the activity described could help determine useful access points in the future: "This is preparing the battlefield so it could later be used.
"This is … watching communications come in and out of a network and saying, 'Okay, these are the places we need to go in.'"
Previous leaks show the NSA and its allies indiscriminately capture telecommunications data from Internet routes. In this presentation, the agency appears to be using that "bulk" collected data to map out specific networks. The NSA is not trying at this stage to get at any data inside individual computers, such as specific transactions or customer records.
Markings on the document, which is labelled "top secret," indicate it was shared with the NSA's Canadian counterpart, the Communications Security Establishment.
"While CSE cannot comment on intelligence capabilities or operations – our own or our allies – there is no evidence in the document in question that intelligence activities have been directed at any Canadian entity, company or individual," spokesman Ryan Foreman said in an e-mailed statement.
(The Globe did not provide a copy of the document to CSE.)
The Canadian companies named in the document say they have no reason to believe their computer systems or customer records were compromised and insist their networks are secure.
"If such surveillance is taking place, we would find that very troubling," Rogers spokeswoman Patricia Trott said.
"We have not provided the NSA access to our network," RBC spokesman Don Blair said.
When The Globe asked the NSA for comment, agency spokeswoman Vanee Vines urged the newspaper not to publish names of intelligence employees.
Asked about the interest in Rogers and RBC, she said the NSA "will not comment on specific, alleged foreign intelligence activities."
In an e-mailed statement, Ms. Vines said the NSA protects the United States from "terrorist plots" and "foreign aggression." She added that the spy agency never collects intelligence "to provide a competitive advantage to U.S. companies."
However, some documents show the U.S. intelligence community has not ruled out such activities in the future. One previously leaked strategy document envisions a future, in 2025, when U.S. companies are falling behind and policy makers push government spies to conduct aggressive economic-espionage campaigns.
Today, under the terms of a 66-year old reciprocal accord, Washington and Ottawa agree to refrain from spying on the communications of each other's citizens and entities.
The document naming the two Canadian companies has not previously been disseminated or analyzed publicly. Earlier this month, the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression launched the Snowden Archive, a database of material Mr. Snowden leaked over the past two years. The Globe used the archive to put the document into a broader context.
The NSA has many technological methods to monitor how communications move along the Internet's infrastructure. But it has grown concerned that it is missing some secured communications, such as the data in the "private networks" and "virtual private networks" (VPNs) of corporations and other large organizations.
VPNs connect remote workers to a company's main internal network using software to create encrypted "tunnels" for communications. Private networks secure the internal arrays of physical devices, such as computers, servers and routers.
"Did you know that ubiquitous encryption on the Internet is a major threat to NSA's ability to prosecute digital-network intelligence (DNI) traffic?" a previously leaked memo says.
The presentation obtained by The Globe states that "private networks are important."
It notes that high-level NSA "targets," such as foreign countries' armed forces and diplomats, use private networks. But it also mentions the Brazilian energy firm Petrobras, the Belgium-based SWIFT network of global electronic payments, and even global "Google infrastructure" controlled by the California technology giant.
But the NSA cannot penetrate a network it does not know exists. That is why it scouts out future targets through what it calls "signals intelligence development" (SigDev).
The presentation obtained by The Globe describes complementary SigDev techniques for finding targets – one is an NSA software program called "RoyalNet," that can help analysts "identify communicants of private networks" or determine the best "access points for a target's communications."
Another technique featured in the presentation involves sorting captured telecommunications traffic into "realms," which the document says are "a label assigned by the intelligence community."
A realm appears to be a continually updated list of everything the NSA can gather about how a specific corporation routes communications on the Internet, and any known device on its private networks. One slide in the presentation titled "Realms in Analyst Tools," shows the drop-down menu listing 15 firms, which is where "RoyalBankOfCanada" and "RogersWireless.ca" are listed.
The list is not visible beyond the letter R entities shown on a screen shot in the presentation, and it is not known whether other Canadian corporations are listed.
John Manley – a former cabinet minister, and now president of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives – said on Monday that, with hacking threats coming from all corners of the world, Canadian corporations are increasingly concerned about data security. "Many of the CEOs who are members of our council consider it their No. 1 risk factor," he said. "And they lose sleep over it."
But, he added, Canadian CEOs would be surprised to know their networks fell under any kind of U.S. government scrutiny. "I would say for most major corporations, they would see the U.S. government as at least benign, and, at most, one of their protectors to do business in the world."