CSEC, is there anything we should know about?


Being America’s next door neighbour can be distracting. As an undeniably influential nation, their news cycles simply can’t be beat. Whether its a potential war or a ludicrous political campaign, it’s very easy to become totally enamoured with the spectacle that is the United State of America.

csecWhile the rest of the world is no doubt a part of America’s audience, Canada is particularly close geographically and (though not as much) culturally, it is hard not to be especially affected. Compare the relative excitement of Canadian political races to those across the border, or even just consider whether or not you’d personally chose to watch The Daily Show over the Rick Mercer Report on any given weeknight. The US is sexy and exciting, but as Canadians we have to be sure that we’re not forgetting to look after ourselves.

One of the largest American headlines from this year is former CIA and NSA employee Edward Snowden’s leaking of classified information concerning the US’s surveillance programs. Now being heralded as one of the most significant leaks in US history, the scandal has shined a spotlight on the US government’s domestic surveillance programs.

As always, its been easy to get caught up in the news of Snowden’s flight to Honk Kong and Russia, as well as the entertainment of new memes and jokes on the subject (mainly Carmen Sandiego spoofs). However, what a story like this should do is stimulate debate on information privacy and national security on this side of the border. Those at the center of the discussion would no doubt be Canada’s national cyrptologic agency, the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC).

CSEC answers to the Department of Defence (DFD) and is charged with maintaining foreign signals intelligence and protecting Canadian government electronic information and communication networks. The agency was formed in 1941 as a civilian group that monitored and intercepted foreign electronic communications, and in 1946 they were renamed and formally established.

CSEC has been allied with the NSA since the Cold War when they worked together. They have integrated reps (members who work for both agencies) and have shared tech on more than one occasion. What’s more, according to documents obtained by the New York Times, CSEC gave control of an international encryption standard to NSA, allowing them to build “backdoors” in the programming. The idea being that any encrypted data being transferred online would be easily hacked.

As a part of “Five Eyes”, both the NSA and CSEC share information with other intelligence agencies around the world, most notably the U.K., Australian and New Zealand.

With such close ties between the NSA and CSEC, can we really afford to assume that CSEC isn’t in some way involved in the same activities the NSA has been?

Now, while the idea that CSEC would be spying on its citizens the way that the NSA was is only speculation, it needs to be addressed. This can’t go down the way it did with Snowden – if our government has been ignoring our rights to privacy, then we should find out about it on their terms, not those of a whistleblower.

Even William Binny, a former NSA official, went on record to warn Canadians about CSEC, saying that those who don’t stand up for informational privacy will lose it. Furthermore, Binny stated that throughout his time with NSA he had multiple opportunities to assess CSEC’s capabilities, which were regularly on par with those from the US.

The debate for privacy vs. security will always be a pertinent one, especially considering that this is all post-9/11. We do want to be safe, and we do want our government to look after us, but lets try to learn from our neighbour’s example. Don’t wait until you’re caught; bring the discussion to Canadians themselves.

-Tim Stacey

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