Skip to main content

The new Communications Security Establishment Canada complex in Ottawa.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

No cellphones, no recording devices, no computers.

No names.

The seven officials at the boardroom table insist that their identities cannot be published – the risk, one explains, is that they would become targets of a "hostile foreign intelligence service."

Given the top-secret nature of their work, that request is understandable. That this conversation is taking place at all is unprecedented – and, to use one official's word, "uncomfortable."

Outsiders rarely interact directly with professional spies at the Communications Security Establishment of Canada. Yet inside CSEC's gleaming new $1-billion headquarters in Ottawa's east end, those engaged in "signals intelligence" are desperate to defend their craft amid a string of controversial disclosures.

Among them: that CSEC spied on Brazil's energy sector; that it tracked devices that used wireless Internet at a Canadian airport; and that it collaborated nearly 300 times over the course of four years with domestic law-enforcement agencies.

All of this has prompted fears that Canada's deep-pocketed spying juggernaut is defying personal freedoms at home, not just keeping tabs on threats in foreign countries.

Amplified in no small part by the ongoing Edward Snowden leaks, it has also prompted a public debate once reserved for privacy critics and information-technology experts.

As we sit in the CSEC boardroom, Defence Minister Rob Nicholson is being grilled 10 kilometres away on Parliament Hill by Opposition MPs pressing him for details of CSEC's spying operations. (Three days later, agency "chief" John Forster was forced to defend his agency's actions to a parliamentary committee suddenly trying to understand the finer points of "signals intelligence" work.)

After 68 years of working in the shadows, in other words, CSEC now finds itself in the spotlight – a glare that could lead to more oversight and less funding if critics get their way.

Over the course of a two-hour-long conversation with The Globe and Mail – the first public conversation by professional Canadian spies about modern surveillance methods – the federal agents set out to explain what they can about their work.

Three dark-suited men in their 30s – an operational policy director, a cyberdefence director-general and a signals intelligence director – are pacing a windowless room.

For now, this is among the few functioning spaces inside the agency's lavish new campus. Most of the 2,200 employees aren't due to move until later this year. But we are here to discuss how "metadata" emanating from computers and smartphones – presumptively, Internet protocol addresses, phone logs and smartphone geolocation data – give CSEC a view of a world's worth of communications.

The problem is that, in a broad sweep of metadata, capturing a Canadian conversation – private chat that is protected by law and accessible only with a warrant – is always a possibility.

To simplify how CSEC works, the signals-intelligence director outlines a cloud on a white board: This is the Internet. He then draws five boxes inside and labels them "covert collection sites."

He stops short of elaborating. (Three more staffers in corporate communications and a very senior female boss are also with us, keeping a close watch on all that is being said.)

"They are positioned where they need to be," he says.

The collection process at these covert sites begins when CSEC machinery logs global telecommunications traffic in bulk. During this first pass, the raw data arrive as an undifferentiated mess, and no one knows – or could know, if they wanted – whether any Canadian metadata are in the mix.

It's only during the next step, "processing and analysis" that identifying information starts to be revealed – and those pesky privacy concerns begin to kick in.

CSEC computers sift out the metadata, then analysts boil them down some more. This is where telling patterns emerge, including whether Canadian data are part of the sweep. CSEC says it treats Canadian material differently, but won't say how.

The final step is "targeting." Now knowing rough patterns worth watching, and how to avoid Canadians, the analysts task the covert collection sites to be on the lookout for communications from identifiable groups of foreigners.

"Let's imagine there is a hostage situation unfolding," the signals-intelligence director says; for example, extremists in a foreign city have taken a Canadian.

He draws three interlinked circles – the captors talking on their phones.

Other federal agencies such as the RCMP and CSIS would want CSEC to get at that communications chain to find the kidnappers. "The solution to this, for us, is metadata," he says, explaining how the agency can funnel down through massive flows.

Once analysts in Ottawa pinpoint the hostage takers' devices, he says, it may be time to start the bugging.

They do not wish to explain how that works. But if, during a ransom negotiation, a known Canadian captive (or even a captor) turned up on the lines, CSEC says it would have to take steps to conceal any Canadian identities and conversations from being shared with federal partners – who couldn't get that material unless they had a warrant.

That is because Canadians' conversations are legally considered private, and intercepting them without a warrant is generally a Criminal Code offence.

Still, by collecting telecommunications data in bulk, including Canadian data, how is CSEC not guilty of illegal search and seizure?

One of the CSEC directors points out his predecessors spied on Nazi radio frequencies in the 1940s – and that this, too, was metadata.

What he means is that the Canadian agency and its allies have spent fully seven decades looking at how electronic communications move – a skill set first forged when they couldn't crack codes shielding an adversary's conversations.

Formed as a Cold War agency, CSEC was left somewhat rudderless after the collapse of the Soviet Union – its $100-million-a-year budget stayed flat through much of the 1990s.

But the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks changed that. Where CSEC had once focused on grabbing Russian radio signals from the Arctic, its surveillance reach grew global in the effort to combat terrorism. Today, it is a complex spying giant that continues to grow even as terrorist threats seem to subside. (Budget forecasts released this week show CSEC will cost taxpayers a whopping $830-million in 2014, thanks in part to a one-time $300-million payment related to the new headquarters.)

Powers have also expanded. Records obtained by The Globe last year show that, since at least 2005, the agency has operated under a "Use of metadata Ministerial Directive" – a form of legal cover that allows it to collect what it can on the understanding that "metadata is information associated with a telecommunication … and not a communication."

In other words, CSEC can collect metadata in bulk, from citizens and foreigners alike, with a top-level assurance that it is not breaking laws that safeguard private Canadian communications.

Not everyone is comfortable with this. Last fall, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association sued CSEC. "One of the central issues in the lawsuit will be to find an expectation of privacy in metadata," said Caily DiPuma, a BCCLA lawyer, in an interview after the sit-down at CSEC.

The agency is facing other legal challenges. In December, outraged Federal Court Justice Richard Mosley ruled the agency had been part of a "deliberate decision" to keep his court "in the dark" about aspects of an intelligence investigation involving two Canadian terrorism suspects who disappeared abroad years ago.

The issue? CSEC had glossed over the fact it shares even its most sensitive intelligence with its partners in the "Five Eyes" – the alliance with U.S., U.K, Australian and New Zealand surveillance agencies.

At the CSEC headquarters, I ask about the judge's ruling and the civil case. The seven officials seated across from me answer my question with poker faces: They will not discuss these issues; they don't want to taint their defence.

Accountability models are a safer subject. A CSEC policy director stands up to sketch what looks like a coffee filter, explaining how everything the agency does trickles through laws, ministerial edicts and thick operations manuals – all in order to protect Canadians.

Beyond all that, a watchdog "commissioner" and his staff of 11 scrutinize operations. "We would love it if people were to trust us," the policy director says.

As difficult a leap as that may be for some, there is reason to believe the Canadian agency does have limits compared to its bigger allies.

In December, a Snowden leak showed that some Five Eyes agencies complained that Canada was being relatively stingy about its metadata collections.

CSEC was said to "minimize" its haul – essentially striking out any information speaking to Canadian identities – before passing it along to allies.

But "re-evaluation of this stance is ongoing," read the leaked 2008 documents, published by The Guardian.

In the boardroom, the professional spies won't speak about the leaks. Yes, they took the unprecedented step of inviting a reporter into headquarters to explain their work. But they stated little in concrete terms.

This standoff strikes at the centre of the larger debate, one that is sure to continue as more revelations are made about how spying in the name of advancing Canada's national interests may interfere with the personal freedoms of Canadian citizens.

Inside CSEC, meanwhile, they keep talking of seeing "shapes," "patterns," even "topography," in data trails.

To the surveillance professionals, metadata are a road map to human behaviour. We on the outside are asked to trust that these federal agents, whose names the country will never know, are out to use it for good.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe