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The new Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) complex is pictured on Nov. 29, 2013 in Ottawa. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)
The new Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) complex is pictured on Nov. 29, 2013 in Ottawa. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)

How CSEC became an electronic spying giant Add to ...

It is known as “Camelot,” and it is believed to be among the most expensive government buildings Canada has ever built.

Next year, the analysts, hackers and linguists who form the heart of Communications Security Establishment Canada are expected to move from their crumbling old campus in Ottawa to a gleaming new, $1-billion headquarters.

It is the physical manifestation of just how far the agency has come since Sept. 11, 2001. Before those attacks, it was known as Canada’s other spy agency – an organization created to crack Communist codes more than seven decades ago, but rendered rudderless after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The agency’s biggest victory of the 1990s, insiders say, was its behind-the-scenes role in the seizure of a Spanish trawler during the Turbot Wars, a 1995 fishing dispute off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.

But now, where it once focused on vacuuming up Russian radio signals from Arctic bases, its surveillance reach is global: Its leaders now speak of “mastering the Internet” from desktops in Ottawa. In 1999, it had a shrinking budget of $100-million a year and a staff of about 900. Today, CSEC (pronounced like “seasick” ever since “Canada” was appended to the CSE brand) has evolved into a different machine: a deeply complex, deep-pocketed spying juggernaut that has seen its budget balloon to almost half a billion dollars and its ranks rise to more than 2,100 staff.

Canadian taxpayers spent $300-million a year on the nation’s two intelligence agencies before the attacks of Sept. 11, but the bill for spying is now coming in at more than $1-billion. That’s because the Canadian Security Intelligence Service has also been bulked up into a $535-million-a-year agency, up from $180-million in 1999.

There are key differences between the agencies. CSIS’s “human intelligence” spies are like stay-at-home defencemen – they work largely in Canada to generate reports about security threats to Canada. CSEC’s “signals-intelligence” spies can go as far as their computers can take them and are afforded an open-ended curiosity to explore issues far beyond Canada’s borders.

An increase in intelligence investment was inevitable after 9/11 – no government wanted to risk a reprise of an al-Qaeda strike. Yet Canadian spending is continuing to rise, even as the terror threat arguably fades.

That kind of arithmetic is being thrown into sharp relief by the ongoing leaks from former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, whose disclosures are spawning an unprecedented global referendum on spying. As Canada and its allies seek to bolster national security, they are raising eyebrows among defenders of personal freedom at home and risking long-term damage on the diplomatic stage.

The strains wrought by the Snowden slides are showing. This week it was reported that CSEC may have invited its closest ally, the U.S. National Security Agency, to come to Canada to spy on world leaders attending the 2010 G20 summit in Toronto.

In October, Brazil’s President accused Canada of “cyberwar” after CSEC was revealed to have spied on that country’s energy sector. That same month, a European Union summit was dominated by calls for U.S. President Barack Obama to explain why the NSA had been targeting the mobile phones of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French Prime Minister François Hollande.

Canadian officials won’t answer questions about operations. But the opacity surrounding CSEC is high, even by the standards of Western spy agencies. Some of its key architects say the current level of secrecy is unsustainable.

‘It’s the public’s bloody money’

You don’t have to understand the technology of modern spying to grasp the motivations behind it.

“When our Prime Minister goes abroad, no matter where he goes, what would be a boon for him to know?” said John Adams, chief of CSEC from 2005 through early 2012. “Do you think that they aren’t doing this to us?”

The retired spymaster is among the agency’s biggest boosters. But in an interview with The Globe and Mail, he said even he is warming up to the idea of more outside scrutiny – or what’s called “review” in Ottawa parlance.

“What I’m saying is you either get some more review or you’re going to run out of money,” he said. “You’ve got to get the public engaged somehow. It’s the public’s bloody money. And it is getting to be not-insignificant amounts of money.”

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