October 29, 2006

Nothing is secret

Your cellphone calls may have many listeners ...


On a typical evening, a man in Edmonton gets a phone call from a man in Karachi, Pakistan.

The call is relayed through a series of stations via fibre optic cable before bouncing off a satellite and back to the phone carrier's ground-based network. Near the man's home in Pakistan - or perhaps near the phone company relay station - a small but powerful antenna array picks up the call. It streams the content to a second array, which then bounces it back to another satellite, this time operated not by the company, but by a branch of the Australian government.

They'll probably never know it, but the two have just been caught in the web of information gathering known as Signals Intelligence. Since 1947, a year before George Orwell penned his cautionary novel 1984 and warned that Big Brother Is Watching, that's what has happened across the globe, to calls and messages of all sorts. If you've communicated over distance with anyone, ever, there's a chance someone listened in.

It's frequently complicated by increasing security around communications - particularly fibre optic lines - as well as laws governing privacy. But if it's transmitted through the air or electromagnetically, someone can intercept it.

Canada has played a key role in that initial network, governed by a top-secret agreement drafted in 1948 called UKUSA. Its contents have never been revealed. In the years since the Cold War with the Soviet Union prompted its creation, the original five nations operating Signals Intelligence - which essentially amounts to the intrusion on private communication from any nation but their own - have been joined by dozens of others, each intent on both bolstering national security and protecting national interests. It's technically against international conventions but nobody protests too loudly, because just about everyone does it.

Along with surreptitious listening technology placed in other nations and along the lines of communication that run between them, each nation operates its own stations, chock full of an array of cutting edge eavesdropping equipment.

In Canada, the most important sits in Leitrim, a sleepy community of Ottawa that was just countryside when the station, codenamed CAF97, was first constructed in 1941. Now, it sits a scant distance from the end of Bank Street, where the city's longest street turns into Highway 31, taking busy urbanites past the capital's airport and subdivisions. Although the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) never talks about its operations publicly, Leitrim - a Canadian Forces base - is long believed to have monitored Russian submarine and shipping activities in the Arctic.

It's been a decade since the network was revealed in Nicky Hager's book Secret Power: New Zealand's Role in the International Spy Network and it wasn't until 1999, and the publication of a privacy report for the European Union, that Signals Intelligence agencies admitted they existed. By then, the end of the Cold War had left Signals Intelligence -SigInt to those involved - adrift; they were relegated in importance to the back of the bus, with efforts aimed at preventing corporate and industrial espionage.

But Sept. 11, 2001, changed that. Now, Signals Intelligence is at the forefront of the spy game, and Canada is up to its neck in it. Once our neighbours came under direct attack, the needs of signals intelligence came under scrutiny, with its budget rising from $140 million in 2000 to more than $220 million in same-year dollars by 2007.

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That doesn't, however, suggest that we now live in a world akin to the film Enemy of the State, where rogue NSA agents chase down Will Smith with technology that would make Bill Gates cry mercy. Legislation prohibits our version of the NSA - the Communications Security Establishment - from eavesdropping on our citizens, or even those with dual nationality.

Of all the nations to employ SigInt, we have some of the most stringently applied rules to protect our rights, says Bill Robinson. The London, Ont., man runs an intelligence blog, Lux Ex Umbra, and has become an expert on SigInts.

"The privacy concerns are legitimate and have to be balanced against the requirements of intelligence gathering," says Robinson. "Certainly we have been leaning heavily the other way, towards privacy protection. We're not being listened to all of the time, if only because the SigInts community does not have the people or technology to waste listening in on everyone, everywhere.

"We get the odd whistleblower from Canada with concerns but we tend to have fairly marginal complaints levelled.''