"Gentlemen do not read each other's mail."
With those words, then-U.S. Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson closed-down the Cipher Bureau. Also known as the "Black Chamber,", the Cipher Bureau was a signals intelligence agency that supported US efforts during the First World War.* Mr. Stimson's words resonate today. Intelligence gathering is tricky business, not only during wartime but also during times of peace. It is for good reason that spying is known as the second-oldest profession.
Throughout history, the exposure of intelligence gathering has led to awkward moments in international relations and domestic politics. This is especially the case when it appears to have been carried out in the service of economic interests, rather than those of national security. Yet economic targets have never been immune from foreign intelligence gathering; their being fair game has been an unspoken rule of statecraft for ages.
And Canada is no exception. A recent Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) report alleges that upwards of 20 countries have engaged in economic espionage against Canada. The list of economic targets is extensive. Some sources claim that foreign agents were able to procure millions of dollars of restricted technologies from Canada's civilian nuclear industry.
All of this may help explain why the Communications Service Establishment Canada (CSEC) appears to have focused on Brazil's Ministry of Mines and Energy. Energy security is a focal point of Canada's current foreign policy –protecting this interest domestically and abroad could perhaps be construed as one of the country's highest national priorities. But for most Canadians, the events in Brazil will have come as a surprise.
Until recently, most Canadians did not know much about Canada's foreign intelligence capabilities and targets. For those in the know, CSEC's national security mandate appeared to focus on issues that most citizens could agree on: protecting the nation from foreign elements seeking to do them harm and ensuring that those exposed to insecurity – from Afghanistan to Haiti – received the necessary protective support.
Spying for economic reasons seems sordid by comparison. But is it?
In a globalized and hyper-connected world, competitiveness is measured by an actor's ability to match or surpass the pace of markets. And as sovereignty devolves from states to corporations and non-governmental groups, global supply chains, international finance, and bourses are increasingly distant from the regulatory influence of any one nation-state.
In other words, the economic security of Canadians can be impacted by global energy politics from the Middle East to South America. Things that Canadians seem to care about – steady employment, healthy communities, and cheap energy – are increasingly sensitive to external forces. Globalization is forcing the question of whether we should broaden our definition of national security to include economic issues, especially in the energy sector.
Our answer cannot and should not be determined in the absence of a genuine public debate. It is not right to extend our definition of security by stealth. As the Snowden revelations amply show, citizens in Canada and the U.S. have ceded vast powers to governments to pursue national security interests. Securing competitiveness abroad may be important to most Canadians. But it's doubtful if most Canadians would see economic spying as strengthening national security or as reflective of the national values that we would like to project.
National security policy needs public oversight and it needs to be defined on the basis of consensus. This may have been easier to create and maintain during the Cold War when threats to national security were clearer. Since Sept. 11, we have faced more diffuse threats requiring rapid government action and the policy priority has been recalibrating our national intelligence and security services to deal with them effectively. But Canadian citizens should still be involved in defining the scope of national security interests even and perhaps especially when the global security landscape is shifting.
Canadians should pay heed to the revelations coming from Brazil. They signal the need for a long overdue public debate on the focus and boundaries of Canada's national security interests in an interconnected world. Informed citizens can make informed choices. But we need an opportunity to do so.
*Historical footnote: As U.S. secretary of war, Henry L. Stimson was on watch during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He subsequently oversaw the re-establishment of the U.S. signals intelligence capability that today has become the National Security Agency.
Rafal Rohozinski is a senior fellow with the SecDev foundation (Canada). Robert Muggah is a research director of the SecDev foundation and director of research for the Igarapé Institute (Brazil). He is also a fellow a the Canadian Defense and Foreign Affairs Institute (CDFAI). This article is published in partnership with the Canadian International Council and its international-affairs hub OpenCanada.