October 30, 2006

They're watching you

Some tapping necessary: experts


Yesterday, the Sun introduced you to the world of signals intelligence, which uses sophisticated technology to spy on private conversations, including Canada's role. Today, experts debate over how that capacity is used.

When the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) was caught tapping Americans' phones earlier this year, the administration painted the move an essential technique to fight terrorism.

John Pike wonders why. The former spokesman for the Federation of American Scientists, who now runs GlobalSecurity.Org, says to consider the targets the NSA watches.

"If you're convinced that American soil is infected with al-Qaida sleeper cells, and if you're convinced we have no idea who these people are or what they look like, then it might seem sensible," says Pike. "They would understand that the FISA (sealed warrants court) mechanism is worthless here because a warrant has to be against a specific person and you cannot get a warrant for persons unknown.

"If you are of the view that there are no sleeper cells, it seems like an extreme measure to say the least, given the constitutional protections that U.S. citizens are supposed to have. And obviously there are none, because five years after 9-11 there hasn't been a single other attack, not even one person walking into a food court and blowing themselves up."

One of the arguments supporting domestic tapping, says Pike, is that without it, authorities might not recognize an attack plan until it's too late to prevent it, "so, to some degree, I'm prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt.

"But then I also do have to say that the handful of conspiracy theories that they have managed to come up with over the last five years are not very impressive. The guys with the paintball gear, the guy who was going to take down the Brooklyn Bridge with a blow torch - evidently they're guilty of stupidity, but so far these people have looked more dangerous to themselves than to the public."

America's allies, then, have reason to fear that their own governments might be using technology to surveil them. "I think the American position of late - and always, to some degree - has been lead, follow or get out of the way."

Lawyer Brittany Benowitz, of the U.S. Center for National Security Studies, believes that domestic surveillance is an extension of the success of signals intelligence.

"It's the crown jewel of the American intelligence community, particularly in terms of what's most secret," she says.

"I don't think, by any stretch, that it has been anything less than key in the fight against terrorism before and after 9-11.

"The significant aspect of the NSA scandal is that we cannot assume that anything is out of bounds anymore with regards to the U.S. government."

Benowitz also notes that there are communications trunks crossing U.S. soil that carry massive international communications. If America is willing to tap its own citizens en masse, she notes, they'll have little pause in targeting foreign subjects, particularly when they can legally do so. Besides, Benowitz suggests, the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress seems to be partisan on protecting domestic surveillance.

"Rather than demanding more oversight, congress is writing bills to not only give the president the statutory authority to do what they're doing, but the much broader authority to collect surveillance without warrants."

That won't matter when domestic tapping evidence comes before U.S. courts, said Benowitz, which will recognize contrary constitutional protections as paramount.

"You could never use the intercepts in trials," she said. "They're not moving in the direction of NSA oversight, they're covering their eyes and writing a blank cheque."

Canadians should know the same powder keg likely won't blow here, according to Martin Rudner, director of the Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies at Carleton University. First and foremost, it's illegal. And the CSE is subject to considerable oversight.

"Can the U.S. intercept Canadian communications? The answer is that under the arrangement CSE (Communications Security Establishment) has with the NSA, they don't. But secondly, and more importantly, it should be noted that if there's an issue that requires an intercept coming from Canada or from the U.S., there are domestic agencies that are already allowed to do that."

While critics argue the CSE, NSA and their British equivalent, the GCHQ, have extraordinary technical capabilities, commission secretary Joanne Weeks notes they have working arrangements to provide expertise to the agencies - the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the RCMP - that are allowed to do so under warrant.

"What would happen theoretically is that they may operate or assist as an agent of the requesting agency and operate under the mandate of the requesting agency," she said.

The other reason for CSE to monitor domestically, says Rudner, is to troll. Outside of the fact that it would break the law, there's the sheer scope of such a plan. "Why intercept large volumes of personal, irrelevant information and clog up the system? They don't have enough computer space, time or staff resources to deal with that."

They already have enough problems trying to get information from within foreign borders, says a former CSE analyst.

"We may know nothing about them, or have never heard their communications, or are unable to break their codes. They may not be sending this data in a way we can hear it, or we might not be successful in finding it," said the source. "The actual technology involved varies widely - there are thousands of forms of telecommunications, and not all are easy to intercept. Actually, few of them are.

"If they are like Canada, the signals would likely be sent over microwave. How do we: a) set up a tower in a foreign country without it being detected, including power to run it, etc., and b) get the data out of the country back to Canada? We would need a tower between theirs, and likely a huge satellite system to forward the data. This is kind of obvious, especially as you generally need some sort of government permission to build towers in the first place, even in Canada.

"And, we would only get one side of one circuit. And, our bandwidth would have to equal the bandwidth of the circuit under cover. And, and ... So we tap something - how do we keep this quiet? And, how to get the data back to our country? This is not at all easy."

But it is done: according to SIGINT (stands for SIGnals INTelligence) observers, Canada's CSE works co-operatively with Australia to get information, for example, on movements or plans launched by known insurgent forces in Afghanistan.

In some cases, it involves considerable field work to get related systems in place. During the Aldrich Ames treason case, it was revealed that the former Soviet spy had snitched on U.S. equipment that during the 1970s was placed in a hollowed-out false tree stump in Moscow.

On top of that, no one is using the exact same system to communicate. "There are thousands of possibilities, and these can be switched very quickly. There are encryption and privacy schemes, other languages, fonts and character sets, different software, and ..."

To that end, a surveillance base like Leitrim, near Ottawa, can have 400-plus staff working on projects.

Unlike previous reports on the ECHELON surveillance system, sources have told the Sun, SIGINT networks do not have the power to troll millions of messages a day for keywords that might indicate problems, or to track individuals 24/7, or to use voice-recognition software to weed out targets.

ECHELON is a project that was run by the five members of what is now called the CANUKUSA partnership: Canada, the U.S., Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

Some of those techniques can be used for gathering, they indicated, but only after a circuit has been breached by SIGINT and the target is under persistent surveillance both through the communications establishment and on the ground.

Much of the hard work of gathering and analysis is completed in a vacuum, with "circuit breaking" analysts not being familiar with other support operations on the ground or even at the same surveillance station. But either way, each potential surveillance goes through rigorous pre-screening.

"In gathering information for military intelligence, it's the unnecessary noise that creates the danger of missing something important," says Rudner. "These are not rogues that run rampant, they are organizations of government that are subject to government law and overseen by independent review agencies. If one does not believe in the law, the Supreme Court, or the government of Canada, at least believe that, in the current climate, they're already busy enough."

Former CSIS agent Sam Porteous, now a trade consultant based in China, says during his time few issues were taken more seriously internally than the right to privacy.

Porteous dismissed suggestions partners in the SigInts community have demonstrated their willingness to unethically monitor one another in a series of botched operations during the latter days of the Cold War. They were the exceptions, not the rule, he said.

"There are and have been serious consequences for those who violate those laws and the creation of CSIS was motivated in great measure by a desire to ensure agencies engaged in intelligence activities would demonstrate appropriate respect for these rights," he said.