Relaunch of the SIGINT Summaries

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In 2013, journalists began revealing secrets associated with members of the Five Eyes (FVEY) intelligence alliance. These secrets were disclosed by Edward Snowden, a US intelligence contractor. The journalists who published about the documents did so after carefully assessing their content and removing information that was identified as unduly injurious to national security interests or that threatened to reveal individuals’ identities.

During my tenure at the Citizen Lab I provided expert advice to journalists about the newsworthiness of different documents and, also, when content should be redacted as its release was not in the public interest. In some cases documents that were incredibly interesting were never published on the basis that doing so would be injurious to national security, notwithstanding the potential newsworthiness of the documents in question. As an element of my work, I identified and summarized published documents and covernames which were associated with Canada’s signals intelligence agency, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE).

I am happy to announce a re-launching of the SIGINT summaries but with far more content. Content, today, includes:

In all cases the materials which are summarised on my website have been published, in open-source, by professional news organizations or other publishers. None of the material that I summarise or host is new and none of it has been leaked or provided to me by government or non-government bodies. No current or former intelligence officer has provided me with details about any of the covernames or underlying documents. This said, researchers associated with the Citizen Lab and other academic institutions have, in the past, contributed to some of the materials published on this website.

As a caveat, all descriptions of what the covernames mean or refer to, and what are contained in individual documents leaked by Edward Snowden, are provided on a best-effort basis. Entries will be updated periodically as time is available to analyse further documents or materials.

How Were Documents Summarized?

In assessing any document I have undertaken the following steps:

  1. Re-created my template for all Snowden documents, which includes information about the title, metadata associated with the document (e.g., when it was made public and in what news story, when it was created, which agency created it), and a listing of the covernames listed in the document.
  2. When searching documents for covernames, I moved slowly through the document and, often, zoomed into charts, figures, or other materials in order to decipher both covernames which are prominent in the given document as well as covernames in much smaller fonts. The result of this is that in some cases my analyses of documents have indicated more covernames being present than in other public repositories which have relied on OCR-based methods to extract covernames from texts.
  3. I read carefully through the text of the document, sometimes several times, to try and provide a summary of the highlights in a given document. Note that this is based on my own background and, as such, it is possible that the summaries which are generated may miss items that other readers find notable or interesting. These summaries try and avoid editorialising to the best of my ability.
  4. In a separate file, I have a listing of the given agency’s covernames. Using the listed covernames in the summary, I worked through the document in question to assess what, if anything, was said about a covername and whether what was said is new or expanded my understanding of a covername. Where it did, I added additional sentences to the covername in the listing of the relevant agency’s covernames along with a page reference to source the new information. The intent, here, was to both develop a kind of partial covername decoder and, also, to enable other experts to assess how I have reached conclusions about what covernames mean. This enables them to more easily assess the covername descriptions I have provided.
  5. There is sometimes an editorial process which involved rough third-party copyediting and expert peer review. Both of these, however, have been reliant on external parties having the time and expertise to provide these services. While many of the summaries and covername listings have been copyedited or reviewed, this is not the case for all of them.
  6. Finally, the new entries have been published on this website.

Also, as part of my assessment process I have normalized the names of documents. This has meant I’ve often re-named original documents and, in some cases, split conjoined documents which were published by news organizations into individual documents (e.g., a news organization may have published a series of documents linked to AURORAGOLD as a single .pdf instead of publishing each document or slide deck as its own .pdf). The result is that some of the materials which are published on this website may appear new—it may seem as though there are no other sources on the Internet that appear to host a given document—but, in fact, these are just smaller parts of larger conjoined .pdfs.

Commonly Asked Questions

Why isn’t XXX document included in your list of summarised documents? It’s one of the important ones!

There are a lot of documents to work through and, to some extent, my review of them has been motivated either by specific projects or based on a listing of documents that I have time to assess over the past many years. Documents have not been processed based on when they were published. It can take anywhere from 10 minutes to 5 hours or more to process a given document, and at times I have chosen to focus on documents based on the time available to me or by research projects I have undertaken.

Why haven’t you talked about the legal or ethical dimensions of these documents?

There are any number of venues where I have professionally discussed the activities which have been carried out by, and continue to be carried out by, Western signals intelligence agencies. The purpose of these summaries is to provide a maximally unbiased explanation of what is actually in the documents, instead of injecting my own views of what they describe.

A core problem in discussing the Snowden documents is a blurring of what the documents actually say versus what people think they say, and the appropriateness or legality of what is described in them. This project is an effort to provide a more robust foundation to understand the documents, themselves, and then from there other scholars and experts may have more robust assessments of their content.

Aren’t you endangering national security by publishing this material?

No, I don’t believe that I am. Documents which I summarise and the covernames which I summarise have been public for many, many years. These are, functionally, now historical texts.

Any professional intelligence service worth its salt will have already mined all of these documents and performed an equivalent level of analysis some time ago. Scholars, the public, and other experts however have not had the same resources to similarly analyse and derive value from the documents. In the spirit of open scholarship I am sharing these summaries. I also hope that it is helpful for policymakers so that they can better assess and understand the historical capabilities of some of the most influential and powerful signals intelligence agencies in the world.

Finally, all of the documents, and covernames, which are summarised have been public for a considerable period of time. Programs will have since been further developed or been terminated, and covernames rotated.

What is the narrative across the documents and covernames?

I regard the content published here as a kind of repository that can help the public and researchers undertake their own processes of discovery, based on their own interests. Are you interested in how the FVEY agencies have assessed VPNs, encryption, smartphones, or other topics? Then you could do a search on agencies’ summary lists or covernames to find content of interest. More broadly, however, I think that there is a substantial amount of material which has been synthesised by journalists or academics; these summaries can be helpful to assess their accuracy in discussing the underlying material and, in most cases, the summaries of particular documents link to journalistic reporting that tries to provide a broader narrative to sets of documents.

Why haven’t you made this easier to understand?

I am aware that some of the material is still challenging to read. This was the case for me when I started reading the Snowden documents, and actually led to several revisions of reading/revising summaries as I and colleagues developed a deeper understanding for what the documents were trying to communicate.

To some extent, reading the Snowden documents parallels learning a novel language. As such, it is frustrating to engage with at first but, over time, you can develop an understanding of the structure and grammar of the language. The same is true as you read more of the summaries, underlying documents, and covername descriptions. My intent is that with the material assembled on this website the time to become fluent will be massively reduced.

Future Plans

Over time I hope to continue to add to the summaries, though this will continue as a personal historical project. As such, updates will be made only as I have time available to commit to the work.


  1. As of writing, no reviewed Snowden document explicitly discloses an ASD covername. ↩︎

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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Update to the SIGINT Summaries

As part of my ongoing research into the Edward Snowden documents, I have found and added an additional two documents to the Canadian SIGINT Summaries. The Summaries include downloadable copies of leaked Communications Security Establishment (CSE) documents, along with summary, publication, and original source information. CSE is Canada’s foreign signals intelligence agency and has operated since the Second World War.

Documents were often produced by CSE’s closest partners which, collectively, form the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence network. This network includes the CSE, the National Security Agency (NSA), the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), and Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB).

All of the documents are available for download from this website. Though I am hosting the documents they were all first published by another party. The new documents and their summaries are listed below. The full list of documents and their summary information is available on the Canadian SIGINT Summaries page.

These documents came to light as I examined the activities that took place between the NSA and New Zealand signals intelligence agencies. The first, “NSA Intelligence Relationship with New Zealand” notes that Canada is a member of the SIGINT Seniors Pacific group as well as SIGINT Seniors Europe. The second, “SIGINT Development Forum (SDF) Minutes”, notes how CSE and GCSB define shaping as “industry engagement and collection bending” as well as CSEC had considered audit analysts’ accounts similar to the NSA, though the prospect of such auditing had rearisen as a discussion point.

NSA Intelligence Relationship with New Zealand

Summary: This document summarizes the status of the NSA’s relationship with New Zealand Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB). The GCSB has been forced to expend more of its resources on compliance auditing following recommendations after it exceeded its authority in assisting domestic law enforcement, but continues to be focused on government and five eyes priorities and encouraged to pursue technical interoperability with NSA and other FVEY nations.

The NSA provides GCSB with “raw traffic, processing, and reporting on targets of mutual interest, in addition to technical advice and equipment loans.” The GCSB primarily provides the NSA with access to communications which would otherwise remain inaccessible. These communications include: China, Japanese/North Korean/Vietnamese/South American diplomatic communications, South Pacific Island nations, Pakistan, India, Iran, and Antartica, as well as French police and nuclear testing activities in New Caledonia.

Of note, GCSB is a member of SIGINT Seniors Pacific (SSPAC) (includes Australia, Canada, France, India, Korea, New Zealand, Singapore, Thailand, United Kingdom, and United States) as well as SIGINT Seniors Europe (SSEUR) (includes Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom, and United States).

Document Published: March 11, 2015
Document Dated: April 2013
Document Length: 3 pages
Associated Article: Snowden revelations: NZ’s spy reach stretches across globe
Download Document: NSA Intelligence Relationship with New Zealand
Classification: TOP SECRET//SI//REL TO USA, FVEY
Authoring Agency: NSA
Codenames: None

SIGINT Development Forum (SDF) Minutes

Summary: This document summarizes the state of signals development amongst the Five Eyes (FVEY). It first outline the core imperatives for the group, including: ensuring that the top technologies are being identified for use and linked with the capability they bring; that NSA shaping (targeting routers) improves (while noting that for CSE and GCSB shaping involves “industry engagement and collection bending”); improving on pattern of life collection and analysis; improving on IP address geolocation that covers Internet, radio frequency, and GSM realms; analyzing how convergence of communications systems and technologies impacts SIGINT operations.

Privacy issues were seen as being on the groups’ radar, on the basis that the “Oversight & Compliance team at NSA was under-resourced and overburdened.” Neither GCSB or DSD were able to sponsor or audit analysts’ accounts similar to the NSA, and CSEC indicated it had considered funding audit billets; while dismissed at the time, the prospect has re-arisen. At the time the non-NSA FVEYs were considering how to implement ‘super-user’ accounts, where specific staff will run queries for counterparts who are not directly authorized to run queries on selective databases.

GCSB, in particular, was developing its first network analyst team in October 2009 and was meant to prove the utility of network analysis so as to get additional staff for later supporting STATEROOM and Computer Network Exploitation tasks. Further, GCSB was to continue its work in the South Pacific region, as well as expanding cable access efforts and capabilities during a 1 month push.  There was also a problem where 20% of GCSB’s analytic workforce lacked access to DSD’s XKEYSCORE, which was a problem given that GCSB provided NSA with raw data. The reason for needing external tools to access data is GCSB staff are prohibited from accessing New Zealand data.

Document Published: March 11, 2015
Document Dated: June 8-9, 2009
Document Length: 3 pages
Associated Article: Snowden revelations: NZ’s spy reach stretches across globe
Download Document: SIGINT Development Forum (SDF) Minutes
Classification: TOP SECRET//COMINT//REL TO USA, AUS, CAN, GBR, NZL
Authoring Agency: NSA
Codenames: STATEROOM, XKEYSCORE