Oct. 16, 2004. 01:00 AM
 
Miro Cernetig 
Graham Fraser 
Richard Gwyn 
Stephen Handelman 
Chantal Hebert 
James Travers 
Ian Urquhart 
Thomas Walkom 
Task force to study threat of cyber strike

MICHELLE SHEPHARD
STAFF REPORTER

OTTAWA—A national task force will be set up to bolster Canada's defences against cyber-attacks by terrorists, a key security official has announced.

Communications Security Establishment chief Keith Coulter made the announcement yesterday at a conference of more than 300 of the country's security experts, noting that the Public Safety Department will establish the new task force in the next few months.

"We can no longer lag behind the U.S. in protecting Canada's infrastructure, which if attacked could shut down hospitals, transportation and businesses," Coulter warned.

It was a rare appearance by the head of Canada's secretive eavesdropping agency, which has the mandate to protect the country's information technology systems and also monitor foreign communications.

Little has traditionally been released by the secretive CSE, where staff is only identified by their first names and providing statistics on languages spoken by employees is deemed too sensitive to release.

Yesterday the new face of agency, whose powers and resources have expanded since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, was on display.

Reporters were given multi-coloured press kits outlining the government agency's duties by a newly hired public affairs spokesperson and Coulter vowed there would be greater disclosure.

"To be effective as an organization ... (it's) only possible in the current context if CSE has the support of parliamentarians and more broadly Canadians, which requires us to share more information."

The 1,269 employees at CSE with their annual budget of $198 million, are responsible for intercepting phone calls and electronic communication around the world and for protecting electronic information of government agencies.

What information is gathered is shared with federal organizations including the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and agencies in the United States, Britain, New Zealand and Australia.

With the passage of Anti-Terrorism legislation in December, 2001, CSE's mandate expanded and the agency was permitted to monitor the communication of Canadians if that information originated abroad, something they were forbidden from doing before.

"If a known member of Al Qaeda operating abroad, communicated with someone in Canada, even if the person in Canada was a foreign operative of Al Qaeda, CSE (was prevented) from intercepting the communication," Coulter said, describing the situation before the 2001 legislative changes.

"What we really do is use our brain power and the latest in technology to selectively hunt for what we are looking for within virtually endless communications haystacks and electronic highways."

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