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Colin Freeze

Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

If you want to get an insight into the sweep of modern spying check out what Bill Robinson has just posted. The London, Ont.-based researcher behind the "Lux Ex Umbra" blog has literally connected the dots on an Edward Snowden leak.

Remember the CBC story last winter about how Canadian spies kept tabs on devices that had used WiFi at an undefined Canadian airport? According to Mr. Robinson's deduction, this was almost certainly Toronto's Pearson International.

His argument is compelling. Looking at one of the more inscrutable slides from that leaked intelligence-agency slideshow, he saw the outlines of a global map start to emerge from a bunch of random pixels. Over a period of months he double-checked his suspicions with Internet repositories – okay, Wikipedia – seeing where transport-hub cities are latitudinally.

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And everything jibed. Check it out.

Here's the slide, as published by CBC, before the annotations and after.

What this interpretation does is add a layer of concreteness to a controversial intelligence-gathering effort, one showing how Canadian government officials may have locked onto Toronto travellers as a wellspring of potential information, studying how the smartphones passing through YYZ later turned up in Havana and Hong Kong and Hyderabad.

You probably don't like reading this if you ever tweeted while killing time over a $10 pint at the Terminal 1 Casey's Bar and Grill. When first disclosed in January, the deck raised questions about government secrecy, domestic surveillance and "special sources" for intelligence.

Confronted with accusations of violating privacy and even perpetrating "mass surveillance," the Canadian spy agency involved – Communications Security Establishment Canada – played down concerns by saying the effort was just a two-week trial run of a spying methodology. That it was only looking at devices and not specific people or their actual communications.

Let's leave aside the bigger-picture issues for another day. Mr. Robinson's deductions are worth highlighting in their own right because they a) are very, very clever and b) amount to a perfect, almost literal, example of what Canadian security and intelligence officials have called "mosaic effect."

During judicial inquiries into intelligence practices in the 2000s, federal officials would frequently assert in sworn testimony that they could publicly say nothing of substance about operations. This argument? Some astute observer out there, probably an adversary, would assemble any little bits of information into a bigger picture that would expose government sources and methods.

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This mosaic-effect reasoning is part of the reason why the Canadian system defaults to near-complete secrecy, though never far behind is the ancillary argument known as "third-party" rule. This rationale basically distills to the fact that Canada's allies, mostly the Americans, are constantly feeding Ottawa officials intelligence information and spying tradecraft, to the point that no one in the nation's capital wants to bite the hand that feeds.

Of course, these arguments have tended to be mustered most forcefully whenever our security agents have engaged in bad things. Such as when they were complicit in U.S. Central Intelligence Agency-led machinations to have several Canadian Arabs jailed and interrogated in Syria after 9/11. Here's a document citing the mosaic effect flowing from that judicial inquiry.

Now, I've met Mr. Robinson, and consider him an argument for, and not against, the mosaic effect. Never an adversary of the state, he is more like an astute observer who has taken it upon himself to read well and deeply into a paucity of CSEC materials out there, to tell the public what he can about this important institution. In this way, he is more like an unpaid, unofficial public servant, soberly telling Canadians more about CSEC than the agency ever will itself.

So when Ottawa officials default to saying nothing of substance about CSEC, the Lux Ex Umbra blog – literally "light from darkness" – always has an insight. Peruse the postings over the past decade in their totality and what you'll see chronicled is an incredible story. The evolution of CSEC, its powers, its budget and its growing reach both inside and outside of Canada – a story everyone else had missed.

So here's to you Mr. Robinson. When government agents say 'we'd like to know a little bit about you for our files' and hide it in their hiding place where no one ever goes, it's nice to have a little light cast on such matters.

Colin Freeze reports on national security from Toronto.

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