Following NSA revelations – what is their relation with Canada/CSE and how does this affect us?

Following the spying revelations made by US house intelligence Committee Chairman speaker Devin Nunes; NSA and their overreaching, ever-intrusive spying procedures are now back at the forefront of discussion.

The amount of power the NSA holds is momentous.  They have their tentacles in every country around the world, and their end-goal, as postulated by former NSA director Keith Alexander is to ‘collect it all.’

Clearly, this type of intelligence gathering has serious implicatons for us as Canadians. However, as most probably know, our spy agency CSE works very closely with the NSA in order to help them achieve their goals.  Indeed, since 1949, Canada and the US have partnered together in SIGINT collection and over the years the relationship has bloomed into a beneficial partnership for both parties.

The NSA has used, and still uses Canada and the CSE to conduct certain surveillance missions as they believe we have had ‘unique geographic access to areas unavailable to U.S.’ according to documents.

In 1948, Canada’s spy agency CSE, joined in a partnership with the NSA and three other countries in the UK, Australia and New Zealand (the latter two joined in 1956), to form a clandestine group called Five Eyes. The groups mandate is tasked with conducting intelligence operations around the world in order to protect and further national interests.

NSA and the CSE’s interests go hand-in-hand.  So much so, the CSE received an estimated amount of more than $11 million dollars from the Five Eyes which, very likely, was from the NSA.

The two agencies also conduct bilateral intelligence operations together. Currently, under a program called “STATEROOM“, CSE, in partnership with the NSA, is conducting joint spying operations with the US overseas.  Top secret documents show that CSE opened covert sites at Canadian ‘diplomatic facilities’ in 20 high-priority countries on the request of the NSA.

Leaked documents also show the Harper government allowed the NSA to engage in unfettered, widespread surveillance of Ontario during the G8/G20 summits.  Allegedly, CSE was unable to commit certain spying operations on Canada, so they circumvented the law by letting the NSA do so.

More detailed NSA and CSE collaboration can be found here or here.

So wouldn’t it be safe to assume that our partnership with the NSA, would result in it refraining from collecting our data?

Unfortunately, things are not so black and white.

According to documents, Five Eyes agencies are not supposed to target each other.  However, there is no framework in place to ensure eavesdropping does not take place.  Each partner instead, is required to adhere to a “gentleman’s agreement” between allies.  As we all know however, there is no honour amongst thieves.

While privacy is considered an international human right (according to the UN), agencies like the NSA argue that their intrusive measures stop at territorial borders.  So it’s important to remember, while CSE might be accountable to the Canadian Charter and laws, the NSA is not.  Therefore, aside from the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ there is no official framework (aside from the US’s own laws) in place that discourages the NSA from collecting data on Canadians.

Even if we were to take their word that data collection on Canadians is minimal, on an indirect level, the NSA, is incidentally, still collecting much of our internet activity.  How so?  Simply said, for data to transmit from one computer to another, the data has to be parsed through a ‘transmission path’, unlike a phone call, which instead is sent on a direct route. Transmitted data has to be routed through Internet servers, in order for the data to properly process before the message itself is sent or received.  The path that this data is routed, is almost always routed through the United States.  Unfortunately at these points in which said data is received, the NSA has the ability to filter, tap into, store and collect information that is being passed through.

Indeed, it is believed that:

At least 90 per cent of Canada’s digital activity, from Facebook to Foursquare to basic email and beyond, is routed through exchange points in the United States, says Ronald Deibert, director of University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab.

In a Toronto Star article Deibert continues his point saying:

“Internet exchange points are critical — this is where traffic is passed between companies — and we have only two Internet exchange points in Canada . . . As a consequence, even an email sent within the city of Toronto most likely would transit to Chicago before being routed back to Toronto.”

Once this data flows past the borders, the NSA is able to access the info without a warrant or judicial oversight according to FISA Section 702.  If these internet exchange points were hosted in Canada, it’s more likely the data sent would be left unrecorded, however, due to the shortage of Canadian IXPs, your information is likely being parsed through the US, where much of it is stored and collected. Were it not for this, potentially, our information would be left anonymous, and would not be able to be accessed should the occasion ever arise.  Unless of course, the ISP’s were directly requested to provide information, which, the NSA has done, and is doing.

Indeed, aside from ‘upstream collection’, through a program called PRISM, the NSA collects data from nine of the major internet providers like Google, Apple, Microsoft, etc. If Canadians are using these providers in any way, it is likely being collected.

Although there is no direct correlation, through a program called MYSTIC released in 2011, the NSA has the power to store an entire countries phone calls for a month, transcribe them and play them back.  They can also collect up to 200 million texts a day (DISHFIRE).  Through databases called MARINA and MAINWAY, the NSA stores billions of internet and phone metadata every day.

For the metadata not collected in the giant dragnet, much of our Internet and phone metadata ‘incidentally’ collected by the CSE, is passed on to our partners in the Five Eyes. Indeed, this was proven by recent revelations, as the metadata passed on was not properly ‘de-identified’, which, in turn resulted in CSE providing foreign agencies with our sensitive information. As a result Canada’s Defence Minister halted the program until he deems that proper barriers are put in place to properly protect Canadian data.  According to leaked documents, ‘bulk daily sharing of metadata with 5 eyes’, has been going on since 2010.

Although Defence Minister Sajjan made this ruling, it’s unlikely it will be to any detriment of the spy agencies. Certainly, just by doing something rather innocuous, like searching online for privacy tools, there is a good chance the NSA’s systems will list your IP as a target and collect all internet information on you.  The powers are so ubiquitous, pervasive and surreptitious that it’s even possible just by reading and looking up articles on privacy or on the NSA/CSE, your IP will be put on a list and your data, collected and stored.

The NSA collects billions of files through text messages, phone calls, metadata, internet and browsing history every day. They have programs that can parse through the useless junk and store information which might contain keywords or other useful indicators and store it for an indefinite period of time.  Indeed, every credit card purchase made, everything bank transaction made, any digital action you can think of leaves behind a trace – meaning that it can be collected and stored.  As said earlier, it is expected that agencies in the Five Eyes are not to spy on each other, however, this does not apply to ‘incidental’ collection, so there’s a great potential that anything you do, any keywords typed in, or any phone calls made which might trigger their systems, will be collected in the database.

Moreover, a lot of the information collected by the NSA is shared on a Google-like search engine called ICREACH, where an estimated five trillion metadata records are said to be available for access.  This means that as the NSA is able to circumvent Canadian laws, agencies like CSE are given the capabilities to access information to Canadians that they would normally not be able to access.

So while CSE might not be able to directly spy on Canadians, the NSA, as mentioned above, is within their rights to do so.

Furthermore, agencies in the Five Eyes are allowed to spy on each other when it pertains to their own ‘national interests.’

Indeed, the term ‘national interests’ is very vague and can certainly possess a broad mandate.

So when it was revealed that the NSA spied on Canadian-based corporations, in RBC and Rogers, it shows that ‘national interests’, do not only pertain to security or cyberterrorism measures.  This type of spying can have a detrimental effect on Canadians, and Canadian businesses, as this revelation, can result in forced alterations made within the company.

So now we know the NSA, along with the CSE, collects and stores lots of information on Canadians.  What then are the implications for the average, informed Canadian, who for example, reads the news everyday?

Certainly, these massive spying capabilities can have a chilling effect on many people, who, due to having this knowledge, can limit themselves to doing certain activities, reading certain articles or involving themselves in certain projects that may be important to them.  This ‘chilling effect’ is certainly a large impediment to many living in a democratic society, as it is preventing us from doing what we, as Canadians, are enshrined in our rights to be able to do.  More so, the chilling effect spills over to the realm of journalism, as many might refuse certain stories, or will hold back on reporting on certain things, leaving society ignorant of important developments in our global community.  There is evidence this is already happening.

Furthermore, giant data collection can give intelligence agencies the potential to form a mosaic on a person’s life, meaning a complete digital profile of somebody which contains all emails, bank information, phone calls, credit card purchases etc.  Having access to all this information certainly grants you a large amount of power.  If a person does something that someone in the intelligence community might not approve of, they can leak something to the public to discredit them, or blackmail them with certain compromising information.  By having this power, they can prevent somebody from doing something important or beneficial to average Canadians, whether it be joining the government, writing a certain article, protesting, bringing government malfeasance to light etc., these powers can have a massive effect on democracy.

More so, by weakening encryption standards, the NSA (and CSE) allows other hackers to exploit the bugs or backdoors created or intentionally exploited by those in the intelligence community.  This puts our valuable information in a compromising position.

Also, NSA surveillance on Canadians, along with CSE, can make whistleblowers or anonymous sources more hesitant to provide information, as such knowledge of their power can make them fearful of their own and their family’s safety.  Press anonymity, although an afforded right in our democracy, can now be easily circumvented by giant data collection.  This leaves stories unreported and many Canadians in the dark to certain information which might be very important to them.

Indeed, these scenarios are not hypothetical.  This is going on today, and a more detailed explanation of why NSA surveillance is detrimental to democracy can be found here.

Furthermore, as was demonstrated in this article, it is clear the NSA and CSE work hand-in-hand when it comes to promoting ‘national interests’.  The national interests of the NSA include keeping the CSE in absolute power as they use the agency for their capabilities and benefits. This means the NSA, with its ability to circumvent Canadian laws, can give information that the CSE might be not allowed to collect (due to laws), which they think might be detrimental to them (CSE, Canadian government, special interests) or their cause.  This ensures those in power can protect their own interests.  Interests which are generally not to the benefit of average Canadians, but rather to those with money, and power.

What needs to be done is a serious overhaul of the system and a fundamental change to our laws, which includes more restriction, regulation and oversight to ensure the CSE mandate is not self-serving for themselves and those in power, but instead, for all Canadians.  The intelligence community is exploiting their power to benefit themselves, rather than the citizens, who are supposedly tasked to be working for us  – as we are paying for this agency with taxpayer money.

Until these changes are had, many Canadians and Canada as a whole will continue to be affected by the gross amount of power afforded to these agencies.  Unfortunately, with resources and technology ever-increasing, these agencies will continue to become even more powerful, which, if left unattended, can transmogrify into something straight out of an Orwellian nightmare.

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About Jake Beaumont 55 Articles
BA in Media Studies from the University of Guelph. Graduated from the University of Guelph-Humber with a Diploma in Journalism. Former Research Analyst for Honest Reporting Canada. Published in the Huffington Post, Vancouver Province and many other newspapers across Canada. Specializes in Middle-East politics. Currently situated in Toronto.

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