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File illustration photo of a magnifying glass being held in front of a computer screen in Berlin May 21, 2013. An encrypted email service believed to have been used by American fugitive Edward Snowden shut down abruptly August 8, 2013, amid a legal fight that appeared to involve U.S. government attempts to win access to customer information.PAWEL KOPCZYNSKI/Reuters

Brazil is entitled to an explanation from the Canadian government about what appear to be plans for economic espionage on the Brazilian Ministry of Mines and Energy (and consequently on Brazilian companies) by the Communications Security Establishment Canada. And Canadian citizens are entitled to a clear, principled statement of the views of the CSEC and the Canadian government as a whole on what kinds of economic intelligence they believe themselves to be justified in collecting.

Possibly, the CSEC slide presentation in question – included among documents disclosed by Edward Snowden, a former U.S. National Security Agency contract analyst – was merely a scenario for "war-game" educational purposes. If so, it would have been far better to target the mines ministry of a fictitious country, such as Lilliput, Utopia or Freedonia – home to equally fictitious business corporations.

Businesses are entitled to have confidential information. Indeed, trade secrets are often their most valuable assets. Moreover, firms have many obligations to protect the confidential information and privacy of other parties, too. That does not mean that they are behaving in a clandestine way that might justify espionage.

CSEC's signals-intelligence activities should not, as a general rule, be put in the service of private companies, either Canadian or foreign. Canadian competitiveness is of course a desirable goal, but one essential element of fair competition, internationally as well as within a home country, is that it should not be deceptive or fraudulent.

Reports over the years have suggested that CSEC has provided the government with economic intelligence in trade negotiations. If so, the practice is dubious. Trade is not war, and trade negotiations should be carried on in good faith – with elements of strategy on both sides.

On Monday, Rob Nicholson, the Minister of Defence, declined to comment on the reports of Canadian espionage on Brazil. It is perfectly right and proper to take some time to provide an answer to such questions, in order to ascertain what actually happened.

The concept of "economic intelligence" is by no means self-explanatory. The Canadian public does not need to be told secrets, but it needs to understand Canada's policy on friendly countries' secrets.