Unpacking the CSE’s 2021-2022 Annual Report

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The Communications Security Establishment (CSE) released its 2021-2022 Annual report on June 28, 2022.1 The CSE is Canada’s leading foreign signals intelligence and cryptologic agency. It is specifically tasked with collecting foreign intelligence, defending government of Canada networks as well as private networks and systems deemed of importance by the government, providing assistance to federal partners, and conducting active and defensive cyber operations.2 The CSE operates as a Canadian equivalent to the United Kingdom’s GCHQ.

Five things stood out to me in the annual report:

  1. It provides more details about the kinds of active and defensive cyber operations that the CSE has undertaken while also clarifying when such operations might take place. This information is important given the potentially deleterious or unintended impacts of the CSE exercising these capabilities. It is, however, worth recognizing that the CSE is casting these activities as preventative in nature and does not include a legal discussion about these kinds of operations.
  2. The report extensively discusses threats to critical infrastructure and the activities that the CSE is undertaking to defend against, mitigate, or remediate such threats. Many of the currently voluntary engagements between the CSE and industry partners could become compulsory (or, at a minimum, less voluntary), in the future, should Canada’s recently tabled infrastructure security legislation be passed into law.
  3. We generally see a significant focus on the defensive side of the CSE’s activities, vis-a-vis the Cyber Centre. This obscures the fact that the majority of the agency’s budget is allocated towards supporting the CSE’s foreign intelligence and active/defensive cyber operations teams. The report, thus, is selectively revelatory.
  4. No real discussion takes place to make clear to readers how aspects of the CSE’s foreign intelligence, cybersecurity/information assurance, assistance, or active or defensive cyber operations authorities may interoperate with one another. The result is that readers are left uncertain about how combinations of authorities might enable broader operations than are otherwise self-apparent.
  5. As I raise at several points when analyzing the annual report there are a number of situations where information in the annual report risks concealing the broader range(s) of actions that the CSE may undertake. Readers of the annual report are thus advised to critically assess the annual report and read what it specifically says instead of what it may imply.

In this post, I proceed in the order of the report and adopt the headlines it used to structure content. After summarizing some of the highlight elements in a given section I proceed with a short discussion of the relevant section. The post concludes with a broader assessment of the annual report, what was learned, and where more information is desirable in the future.

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Unpacking NSICOP’s Special Report on the Government of Canada’s Framework and Activities to Defend its Systems and Networks from Cyber Attack

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On February 14, 2022, the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) released a report that explored how the Government of Canada sought to defend its systems and networks from cyber attack from 2001 onwards.1 The report provides a comprehensive account of how elements of the Government of Canada–namely the Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS), Shared Services Canada (SSC) and Communications Security Establishment (CSE)–have developed policies, procedures, and techniques to protect government systems, as well as the iterative learning processes that have occurred over the past two decades or so pertaining to governmental cyber defence activities.

I want to highlight four core things that emerge from my reading of the report:

  1. From an empirical point of view, it’s useful to know that the Government of Canada is preparing both a policy on paying ransomware operators as well as developing a Vulnerabilities Disclosure Policy (VDP) though the report does not indicate when either will be open to public comment or transformed into formal government policy;
  2. A high-level discussion of senior coordination committees is provided, though without an accompanying analysis of how effective these committees are in practice. In particular, the report does not discuss how, as an example, cross-departmental committees are working to overcome problems that are raised in the sections of the report focused on TBS, SSC, or the CSE;
  3. NSICOP maintains that all parties associated with the government–from Crown corporations, to government agencies, to other independent branches of government–should operate under the government’s security umbrella. NSICOP does not, however, make a constitutional argument for why this should be done nor assess the operational reasons for why agencies may not currently operate under this umbrella. Instead, the report narrowly argues there are minimal privacy impacts associated with enjoying the government’s cyber security protections. In doing so, the committee presumes that privacy concerns have driven separate branches of governments to operate outside policies set by TBS, and services offered by SSC and the CSE. At no point did the Committee engage with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC) to assess potential privacy issues associated with the government’s cyber security policies and practices; and
  4. NSICOP did not canvas a wide set of government agencies in their interviews and included no external-to-government parties. The consequence is that the report does not provide needed context for why some government agencies refuse to adopt TBS policy guidance or regulations, decline services operated by SSC, or have limited uptake or adoption of advice or technical systems offered by the CSE. The consequence is that this report does nothing to substantively assess challenges in how TBS, SSC, or the CSE themselves are deploying their defensive capacities across government based on the experiences of those on the receiving end of the proffered cyber security and defence offerings.

In this post, I conduct a deep dive into NSICOP’s report, entitled “National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians Special Report on the Government of Canada’s Framework and Activities to Defend its Systems and Networks from Cyber Attack.” Throughout, I summarize a given section of the report before offering some analysis of it. In the conclusion of this post I summarize some of the broader concerns associated with the report, itself, as well as the broader implications these concerns may have for NSICOP’s long-term viability as an independent reviewer of the national security community.

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Public and Privacy Policy Implications of PHAC’s Use of Mobility Information

Last week I appeared before the House of Commons’ Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy, and Ethics to testify about the public and private policy implications of PHAC’s use of mobility information since March 2020. I provided oral comments to the committee which were, substantially, a truncated version of the brief I submitted. If interested, my oral comments are available to download. What follows in this post is the content of the brief which was submitted.

Introduction

  1. I am a senior research associate at the Citizen Lab, Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy at the University of Toronto. My research explores the intersection of law, policy, and technology, and focuses on issues of national security, data security, and data privacy. While I submit these comments in a professional capacity they do not necessarily represent the full views of the Citizen Lab.
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Review: The Bridge in the Parks-The Five Eyes and Cold War Counter-Intelligence

There are innumerable books, movies, podcasts, and TV shows that discuss and dramatize the roles of intelligence services during the Cold War. Comparatively few of those media, however, discuss Canada’s role during the same period. Molinaro’s edited volume, The Bridge in the Parks: The Five Eyes and Cold War Counter-Intelligence, goes a way to correcting this deficiency by including five chapters on Canada,1 as well as post-script, in a nine chapter book about Cold War counter-intelligence practices.

The Bridge in the Parks is written by historians who have used archival research and access to information laws to unearth information about a variety of Five Eye security services. The aim of the text as a whole is to “add nuance to what has often been a polarizing historical field in which scholars are forced to choose between focusing on abuses and the overreach of intelligence agencies in the Cold War or discussing successfully prosecuted individuals cases of counter-intelligence. This volume thus seeks to add complexity to this history, more in line with the “grey” world in which counter-intelligence has often existed” (8). On the whole, the book is successful in achieving this aim.

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Lawful Access Returns: Online Harms and Warrantless Access to Subscriber and Transmission Data

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For the better part of twenty years, law enforcement agencies in Canada have sought warrantless access to subscriber data that is held by telecommunications service providers and other organizations. The rationale has been that some baseline digital identifiers are needed to open investigations into alleged harms or criminal activities that have a digital nexus. Only once these identifiers are in hand can an investigation bloom. However, due to the time that it takes to obtain a relevant court order, as well as challenges in satisfying a judge or justice that there is a legitimate need to obtain these identifiers in the first place, these same agencies recurrently assert that an initial set of seed digital identifiers should be disclosed to officers absent a court order.

The Government of Canada has, once more, raised the prospect of law enforcement officers obtaining subscriber or transmission data without warrant when undertaking activities intended to “enhance efforts to curb child pornography.” This time, the argument that such information should be made available is in the context of combatting online harms. The government has heard that companies should include basic subscriber or transmission data in their child pornography-related reports to law enforcement, with the effect of law enforcement agencies getting around the need to obtain a warrant prior to receiving this information.

In this post I start by discussing the context in which this proposal to obtain information without warrant has been raised, as well as why subscriber and transmission data can be deeply revelatory. With that out of the way, I outline a series of challenges that government agencies regularly experience but which tend not to be publicly acknowledged in the warrantless access debates associated with child sexual abuse material (CSAM). It is only with this broader context and awareness of the challenges facing government agencies in mind that it becomes apparent that warrantless access to subscriber or transmission data cannot ‘solve’ the issues faced by agencies which are responsible for investigating CSAM offences. To develop appropriate policy solutions, then, we must begin by acknowledging all of the current obstacles to investigating these offences. Only then can we hope to develop proportionate policy solutions.

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Canadian Government’s Pandemic Data Collection Reveals Serious Privacy, Transparency, and Accountability Deficits

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Just before Christmas, Swikar Oli published an article in the National Post that discussed how the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) obtained aggregated and anonymized mobility data for 33 million Canadians. From the story, we learn that the contract was awarded in March to TELUS, and that PHAC used the mobility data to “understand possible links between movement of populations within Canada and spread of COVID-19.”

Around the same time as the article was published, PHAC posted a notice of tender to continue collecting aggregated and anonymized mobility data that is associated with Canadian cellular devices. The contract would remain in place for several years and be used to continue providing mobility-related intelligence to PHAC.

Separate from either of these means of collecting data, PHAC has been also purchasing mobility data “… from companies who specialize in producing anonymized and aggregated mobility data based on location-based services that are embedded into various third-party apps on personal devices.” There has, also, been little discussion of PHAC’s collection and use of data from these kinds of third-parties, which tend to be advertising and data surveillance companies that consumers have no idea are collecting, repackaging, and monetizing their personal information.

There are, at first glance, at least four major issues that arise out of how PHAC has obtained and can use the aggregated and anonymized information to which they have had, and plan to have, access.

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