Skip to main content

Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) chief John Forster holds a document marked top secret while waiting to testify before the Senate national security and defence committee in Ottawa February 3, 2014. REUTERS/Chris Wattie (CANADA - Tags: POLITICS) - RTX186RG© Chris Wattie / Reuters/Reuters

Is Canada engaged in cyberwarfare? Should it be? Until now, it had seemed that the business of the Communications Security Establishment was gathering electronic information, not turning bits and bytes into weapons.

But a report from The Intercept and CBC News, based on documents from 2011, appears to show the U.S. National Security Agency and CSE working together on hacking into foreign networks, not only in the Middle East and North Africa, but also in Europe and Mexico. The document says that CSE can defend against electronic attacks, and can also carry them out, to "disable adversary infrastructure," "control adversary infrastructure," or "destroy adversary infrastructure."

CSE has responded, saying that the documents do "not necessarily reflect current CSE practices or programs." That sounds awfully close to a "Yes."

This news comes while a House of Commons committee is studying Bill C-51, which would give much greater powers to another one of Canada's intelligence agencies, CSIS. This convergence of events underlines the importance of clarifying and limiting the powers of the intelligence agencies, and putting in place robust oversight.

The scope of CSIS has at least had some vigorous public debate. The same cannot be said of CSE. One leaked document seems to show details on CSE "cyber defence operations." It suggests something far beyond CSE's traditional job of monitoring communications.

There can be no real doubt that contemporary warfare includes cyberwarfare. The Stuxnet computer virus was apparently such a weapon, which for a time slowed Iran's progress on its nuclear program by causing a nuclear enrichment plant to quietly malfunction.

It would not be surprising if Canadian military and intelligence agencies wanted to build up their cyberwarfare capabilities – both defensive and offensive. But there has been no public or political discussion about this. More importantly, there has been no international attempt to roll back a dangerous new arms race.

The world needs to start talking seriously about outlawing or at least greatly limiting cyberwar. The Chemical Weapons Treaty and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty are models. Cyberweapons are no longer science fiction; they're very real instruments of mass destruction that need to be controlled.

Interact with The Globe