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Our spy agencies suck too

Our spy agencies suck too

by Jacques Rockhard

I would argue that, contrary to popular perception, Canadians’ favourite pastime has nothing to do with hockey; or Tim Hortons; or carrying on a relentless campaign of negligence, violence, and borderline ethnic cleansing against Indigenous people; or hockey. Our favourite thing to do, by far, is to compare ourselves to Americans.
This is a trend that has sharply increased in popularity since the election of Trump and again since his dogshit garbage handling of the pandemic. The problem is, comparing ourselves to Americans isn’t exactly the healthiest of hobbies. It provides a comforting dose of schadenfreude (which is German for wanting to poop on people that remind you of your parents (no it isn’t, it’s actually German for the satisfaction you gain from witnessing the failure of others, it just sounds like the other thing)), but it also often blinds Canadians to the failures of our own government. Doing ‘pretty good compared to the States’ is like saying ‘our genocide wasn’t even bad compared to the Nazis,’ like yeah but we still fucking had one didn’t we?
Anyway, the reason I’m bringing this up is that I feel like a good example of one of these schadenfreude-induced blindspots is Canadians’ perception of our intelligence community. In fact, there’s a pretty good chance that your perception of the Canadian intelligence community is next to nonexistent because all we hear about is how dogshit garbage the American one is. But in recent years, a bunch of court rulings and watchdog reports have been revealing a lot about the pretty sketchy attitudes our top spies have toward the law.
So, this article will serve as a reality check. Just because our taxes didn’t funnel cocaine into black neighborhoods, topple democratically elected governments, or fund torture like Americans’ did (that we know of) doesn’t mean they didn’t go toward some other wild shit. And knowing what your taxes get up to is like the entire point of a democracy, so you shouldn’t just stop caring because it’s more fun to laugh at those idiots to the South. Now sit your ass down and enjoy this brief catalogue of the reasons our spy agencies suck too.
First things first, there are three main agencies in Canada that gather intelligence—that do spying. There’s the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, our federal police force (like the FBI); the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, our main spy agency (kinda like the CIA except it’s also allowed to work alone within its country); and the Communications Security Establishment, our cybersecurity and signals intelligence agency (kinda like the NSA).
Now, the bulk of the sketchy shit that these three agencies undertake falls into two categories that I just made up: spying on Canadians, which they can’t do without permission, and breaking the law without permission, which they can’t do without permission… obviously. We’ll start with the former, mostly because this is the one that we know the most about—it’s the one they get caught doing the most.
The first category has almost everything to do with mass surveillance as well as the failure of legal entities to adapt to new technologies. Let me explain. You may remember that in 2013, Edward Snowden was the first to tell the world that the NSA, for which he had been a contractor, was spying on Americans by gathering metric fuckloads of their communications into a database that could later be used to pull up metadata, which is information on everything to do with a person’s communications, except the content. They were also spying on the content, but the metadata is what’s important, because we’re focusing on Canada here. The connection is that the CSE was created in conjunction with the NSA. When I said earlier that the CSE is “kinda like” the NSA, I was lying, it’s exactly the same as the NSA. So was the CSE collecting metadata in the same way? Fucking absolutely.
Edward Snowden, NSA whistleblower
Edward Snowden, NSA whistleblower
Here’s how it worked in Canada: Until 2019, the CSE (then CSEC, the last C stood for Canada but they got rid of it, idk) wasn’t allowed to collect information within Canada, but apparently their technology could be used to assist RCMP or CSIS operations, including those within Canada. So, the RCMP or CSIS would designate a target for electronic surveillance (which they could do with a warrant,) and CSEC would intercept that target’s communications, metadata, and the metadata of everyone that the target interacted with electronically. This includes who you call, for how long and how often, who you text, where you go and more.
Worse, from 2006 to 2016, CSIS stored that metadata in an internal database called the Operational Data Analysis Centre, and saved it for later. That straight up breaks the law, I mean just the collection was borderline and I still would’ve complained about it, but the database isn’t even close to legal. But were they just breaking a small law? I hear you ask, like a moron. Oh, just Section 8 of the Charter of fucking Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees protection from unreasonable search and seizure. No big deal, only the foundation of our country. That law is so important I have to fucking capitalize it when I write about it, and CSIS didn’t think there was anything wrong with what they were doing.
Another example of the intelligence community’s abuse of new surveillance technology is the RCMP’s “Project Wide Awake.” Which, just by the way, is a reference to X-Men, in which the President created Project: Wideawake to deal with the mutant problem in America including via military force. I don’t know if the RCMP completely missed the point of X-Men, or if they were just feeling like being evil that day, but do they know that their agency was created to “deal” with Indigenous people in very much the same way that CIA contractors “dealt” with mutants in the comics? Cause I know that. I know that for sure. Like what the actual fuck bro.
Anyway, catastrophic branding decisions aside, The Tyee reported in November this year that Project Wide Awake, the details of which had been repeatedly and thoroughly obfuscated according to the report, used sophisticated social media surveillance technology to target online activity of Canadians without judicial oversight, which in English means that, since 2017, the RCMP has been able to look at pretty much anything you do on the internet, including activity that you might try to hide, without a warrant. Now, this report is recent, so there hasn't been much legal analysis, but the RCMP is operating under the idea that activity on the internet, any activity on the internet cannot be subject to an expectation of privacy and therefore can be investigated without a warrant, which, I`ll go out on a limb here and say, is flagrantly bullshit.
Internal RCMP documentation of Project Wide Awake with a scary-ass logo
Internal RCMP documentation of Project Wide Awake with a scary-ass logo
And even without my expert legal opinion, I think you’ll agree that that level of surveillance without oversight is fucking disgusting. But this is where we get to the part I mentioned earlier about the failure of legal entities to adapt to new technology. The RCMP never told a single judge what they were doing with Project Wide Awake, and from 2006 till 2016, CSIS never told a single judge that they were collecting metadata from targets of electronic surveillance. In order to function, an intelligence agency obviously needs to maintain a certain level of secrecy, and consequently cannot be directly accountable to the public. However, as a compromise, the public requires that the agency be accountable to the judiciary, the branch of government least influenced by politics, and with the strongest grasp of the law. So I don’t think it’s unreasonable, given the amount of power the public yields to the courts with respect to holding the agencies that we pay for accountable, to expect that the judiciary take some proactive measures in not allowing the intelligence community to continually breach our Charter right to privacy.
CSIS even admitted that the legal system can’t keep up with their surveillance techniques. A week and a half ago, the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency, or NSIRA, Canada’s intelligence community watchdog created in 2019, released their first annual report that, according to the CBC, warned that CSIS’ use of geolocation data collected via IMSI catcher, a device that spoofs cell towers, could be illegal. In a statement, a spokesperson said that “CSIS sequestered information collected by the tool so that an in-depth assessment could be undertaken to ensure that any collected information was lawfully obtained. Ensuring timely legal advice in this challenging area of novel technology and respecting privacy is critical for CSIS to carry out its critical mandate.”
Translation: CSIS has put the geolocation data aside until the Department of Justice can figure out whether or not it’s illegal, and we don’t know the answer because technology keeps advancing, which is my point exactly. Although, at this point I should mention that I don’t expect the judiciary and NSIRA to be completely responsible for holding our intelligence agencies accountable. This is because in some cases, they straight up lie. These cases generally fall under the second category of sketchy shit: breaking the law without permission.
Often in the course of “carrying out their critical mandates,” to borrow a phrase, Canadian intelligence agencies are required to break the law. Our legislation provides for these eventualities. In two consecutive national security laws, Bill C-51 from Harper and Bill C-59 from Trudeau include amendments to the mandates of CSIS and the CSE respectively to include potentially lawbreaking activities, especially if those activities are conducted outside of our borders. What our legislation doesn’t provide for is the ability of these agencies to not tell the courts (or in the case of the CSE for some idiotic reason, the Ministers of Defense and sometimes Foreign Affairs, who are politicians, instead) when they break the law.
This past summer, the Federal Court of Canada ruled that CSIS had “breached the duty of candour it owed to the courts” by not disclosing that the information on which it based its warrant applications was potentially obtained illegally. Justin Ling reported for VICE that the potentially illegal activity had to do with its investigation of foreign fighters for ISIS. An example of such activity was the alleged employment of Mohammed Al-Rashad, a smuggler caught on tape bringing British girls across the Turkish border with Syria to become new “brides” in 2015. CSIS and the then Minister of Public Safety, under whom CSIS operates, denied actually employing Al-Rashad, but didn’t say whether or not they paid him. If they did, it would break Canadian law.
According to the court ruling, CSIS carried out potentially illegal activities like this based on sketchy legal advice that cleared the agency. When the then CSIS watchdog, the Security Intelligence Review Committee, suggested they cool it with the law-breaking, and in 2017, the Justice Department suggested the same thing, the spy agency pretty wholeheartedly ignored the advice. Under C-59, which only came into effect in 2019, this type of illegal activity is explicitly allowed, and we can argue about whether or not that’s a good thing some other time, but what’s important is the complete disregard CSIS holds for that distinction.
Not to mention that, again, our legal understanding of the situation was miles behind CSIS' actual handling of the situation, and they treated that lack of understanding as a free pass to do what they, in their own completely unaccountable estimation, felt was best. And that’s not the exception, that’s the rule. Our intelligence community hides behind a wall of secrecy and uses that position to do whatever they want in the face of the law and in spite of the Charter rights of the very people from whom these agencies derive their mandate and their fucking money.
This is a culture that cannot be allowed to persist if we want to continue to maintain both our privacy and our smug attitude toward the U.S. I’ll remind you that it was an American who had the balls to bring the world’s attention to the worst behaviour of national security establishments globally, and it was in America where this attention actually caused any type of reaction. We do the same shit here and we’ve known about it for years and there have been virtually no steps to curtail invasion of privacy or adjust attitudes toward accountability. So fuck you, think about that the next time you’re soooo glad you’re not American.
Written by:
Colman Brown
Instagram: @Lankmun


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