Skip to main content

Politics Insider delivers premium analysis and access to Canada's policymakers and politicians. Visit the Politics Insider homepage for insight available only to subscribers.

"As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns- the ones we don't know we don't know."

― Donald Rumsfeld, former U.S. Secretary of Defence, 2002

Imagine that you are child and it's Christmas morning. You awake to find a beautifully wrapped present under a tree. Your heart bursts with excitement. You tear the paper. You look inside the box and … it's completely empty.

Again. This happens to you every rotten year. Good grief.

This is the only way I can relay the constant emotional letdown of what it's like being a reporter who thinks it's a good idea to ATIP the CSE.

"ATIP," for those of you not in the know, is a vernacular verb drawn from an acronym. Reporters who request that the federal government release information under the "Access to Information and Privacy Act" are the people who ATIP the most.

"CSE" is shorthand for Ottawa's supersecret spy agency, the Communications Security Establishment Canada. The CSE (or, sometimes, "CSEC") tasks hundreds of brainiac scientists and engineers to vacuum up all the data-trail vapours that people don't necessarily know they leave behind.

The CSE doesn't often highlight its activities. Its electronic eavesdropping is mostly done in the name of national security. And while the CSE is generally forbidden from spying on Canadian citizens, there is some stuff happening around the edges of its mandate that raises concerns.

In the era of the supposed rise of surveillance states, governments are becoming better and better at sucking up and parsing all the Internet communications we route through iPhones, laptops, cable lines and satellites. Bigger and better mainframes, improved algorithms, voiceprints, Moore's Law, Big Data, all that. And given all that's happening technologically in the world, wouldn't it be nice to know where the most borderline stuff is happening? In Canada?

So, this is the drill. I request conversations with the CSE. But the CSE generally refuses to have conversations with outsiders.

The fallback? Every few weeks, I send letters and $5 cheques to Ottawa in the naïve hope that ATIP can help me pry grand disclosures about the world of espionage from this really important federal agency, which hardly anybody outside government seems to take much of an interest in.

Months after I file an ATIP, a brown envelope from the CSE arrives on my desk, brimming with government papers and seeming promise.

I open the envelope and … everything of value and substance arrives blotted out.

Case in point: Here's an actual May 9 ATIP I received.

Basically, I asked the CSE for a statistical chart. To its credit, CSE gave me that statistical chart. Problem was, it was blotted out in its entirety. No really, have a look.

The cited reasons for the redactions are that releasing the graph would refer to state secrets involving military strategy and the vulnerability of government computer systems.

This reasoning is questionable. We'll get what this chart is and why it's important in a second.

But first let me say this: I broadly get it. National security is important. Sources and methods of spy agencies are rightly sensitive. And in terms of ATIPs these days, times are tough all around. Even reporters who try to mine the Department of Fisheries and Oceans for stuff feel like kids with empty gift boxes.

Here's the thing, though. We taxpayers pay the CSE hundreds of millions of dollars each year to do three important jobs. And I just got denied a basic answer to a basic question about one of these jobs.

CSE's first mandated job to spy on foreigners who don't have Canada's best interests at heart. This is real espionage, and I didn't ask a question about this mandate.

The second is to protect government computers from cyber attack. Again, a rightly difficult subject for officials to speak about. Best left for another day.

But the CSE's third, and least publicized job, is to use the technological wizardry to help the Mounties and CSIS chase down people who are doing dangerous things in Canada.

Pay attention to that last part. If the Mounties comes calling to CSE HQ with a judge's signature on a warrant, they can compel this arcane agency, with a mostly foreign focus, to suck signals out of the air, the ground and underseas, and sift through the electronic chatter, in order to advance domestic investigations – despite all the traditional proscriptions against spying in Canada or on Canadian citizens.

I'm hearing that people at the domestic agencies are increasingly singing the praises of the CSE, albeit in highly oblique terms. This makes me want to know more about how this sort of partnership is achieved, how it is kept legal and whether it is increasing.

Given all this, I used ATIP to ask the CSE to fork over statistics on how often it has helped its domestic counterparts over the past three years. I never asked about methods. I never asked about investigations. I just asked for raw numbers.

I got back a chart on CSE "support to lawful access requests." And it is this chart that arrived back to me completely blacked out.

The one granular (and somewhat reassuring) thing I can tell you is that federal domestic security agencies seem to be putting in dozens, and not hundreds, of requests for help to the CSE each year. By design or mistake, no one blotted out the Y axis on the chart, which maxes out at 60. This means that neither the RCMP, CSIS, the Department of National Defence nor the Canadian Border Services Agency – and I hadn't known CBSA was in the mix – exceeded 60 support to lawful access requests in the past few years, according to the graph.

But what I can't tell you whether this sort of help is increasing or decreasing, because, it appears that Canadians are not allowed to know.

I just can't help but feel this is important stuff. Look at what's going on elsewhere in the world.

In the United States, the CSE's counterpart agency is reportedly trying to freeze all Internet communications, and store them in Utah for safekeeping.

And after last month's Boston Marathon bombings, some credible pundits suggested that the U.S. government actually has the ability to capture and reconstruct domestic phone calls that took place inside the United States years ago – calls that authorities never had gotten a warrant to procure in the first place.

I'm not saying the CSE would go any where near that far. I'm not saying it is rogue agency running roughshod over its mandate. What I am saying is that it is worth keeping eye on how it is helping advance domestic investigations.

Yet we are largely denied even the most basic information about the CSE's activities.

Colin Freeze is an investigative reporter in the Toronto bureau.

Follow related authors and topics

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

Interact with The Globe