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The revelation – courtesy once again of the U.S. National Security Administration leaker Edward Snowden – that Canada has been spying on a Brazilian government agency seems to confirm that electronic espionage is trying to peer into every global corner and is using ultra-modern techniques of metadata collection as a principal tool. The Canadian agency involved, according to a report on Brazilian television, is the secretive Communications Security Establishment Canada.

The CSEC has a long history but was given enabling legislation and some public profile only in 2001 with the passage of the Anti-Terrorism Act. That legislation tells us a good deal of the little we know about CSEC, including the fact that a part of its mandate is to collect foreign intelligence "from the global information infrastructure" to meet government of Canada intelligence priorities.

Communications to and from Brazil's Mines and Energy Ministry is clearly part of the global information commons these days, whatever steps the Brazilian government might take to keep its communications secure. What is more puzzling, and more important, is the question of how Canadian intelligence gathering targeting the Brazilian government might accord with Canadian government's priorities and needs. There might be an answer to this question, but if there is one, no government since the passage of the Anti-Terrorism Act has provided one.

The broad impression given by government statements on intelligence since the 9/11 attacks has been that Canadian intelligence priorities and resources have been reoriented towards such things as global terrorism, weapons of mass destruction proliferation and support to military operations – things that can easily be understood as benefiting Canadian national security. The Public Safety department continues, in annual reports on counter-terrorism, to insist that global terrorism and its manifestations remain the number one national security threat to Canada.

If the Canadian government has quietly re-engineered its intelligence priorities to include economic intelligence-gathering against friendly states then it would be best that the Canadian public are made aware of this in a revamped review of national security and intelligence, to replace the National Security strategy produced by the Paul Martin government in its dying days in 2004. Intelligence resources are finite, especially for a country like Canada, and there is always an important issue of proportionality to be considered in setting intelligence targets – that is, is the game worth the candle? Should economic relations with Brazil now be soured by these revelations, that proportionality question will rocket to the surface.

Economic intelligence gathering is also a tricky business. You have to decide its purpose and how any such intelligence might be used–would it be kept for strictly government use in informing economic policy, or would it also be provided, somehow, to private sector interests in Canada to boost their competitiveness? These are very large policy questions with steep downsides. To "level the playing field" using intelligence secrets is far from easy and it, of course, invites others to do the same. On top of other aspects of global economic insecurity, do we really want to add in hyper spying?

Another possibility nested within the story of CSEC spying on Brazil is that this was not really a made-in-Canada operation, but rather a task undertaken by Canada as part of its alliance objectives within the very secret world of the so-called "Five Eyes" system. The Five Eyes describe the intelligence partnership between a small and exclusive club of states that consists of Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. How the Five Eyes works as an alliance system is something that not even Edward Snowden was privy to, and for that we can probably be thankful.

Its secrets remain largely intact. We do know that it is a long-established intelligence alliance with roots going back to the Second World War, and that Canada has benefited greatly from being a junior member of the club. The Five Eyes share intelligence, share resources and technological know-how, and share targeting. In the Brazil case, the Brazilian Department of Energy and Mines might simply have been a Five Eyes target, with data scooped up by the giant U.S. National Security Agency, and handed to CSEC as a task. If so, the Snowden revelations have landed us in some temporary hot water in terns of Canada's relations with Brazil, but suggest otherwise that for the Five Eyes, it's the global business of intelligence collection as usual. If Brazil is a Five Eyes target we weigh the proportionality question, the cost-benefit issue, in a very different light than if it turns out it was a Canadian target for intelligence gathering.

There are very good reasons why Canada needs to be in the Five Eyes intelligence system, even as a junior partner, even working on tasks that might not directly benefit Canadian interests but serve as a quid pro quo. It is hard to see that there are such good reasons for Canada, if doing it on its own bat, to be spending intelligence resources on spying on Brazil.

Where the Brazil mission came from is something we will probably never learn, as Canada typically does not produce Edward Snowdens. But there is still good reason, so many years on from 9/11 and from our one-shot National Security Policy, for a confident majority government to talk to its own citizens about what its intelligence priorities and national security concerns really are.

Wesley Wark is a Visiting Professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and an expert on intelligence services.