Foreign signals intelligence

On August 1, 2019 the Communications Security Establishment Act (CSE Act) came into force. The CSE web site is being updated to reflect the changes in CSE’s authorities and the accompanying accountability and transparency measures.

Foreign signals intelligence

Signals intelligence (or SIGINT) is the interception and analysis of communications and other electronic signals. The practice of intercepting electronic signals began in the early 1900s during times of war, when transmissions from radios and telegraphs were captured, decoded, and used for military strategy. Today, the world of signals intelligence includes any form of electronic communications, such as telephone calls and text messages, computer and internet communications, and satellite signals.

CSE’s mandate

In addition to the cyber defence (Part B) and assistance (Part C) parts of our mandate in the National Defence Act, CSE is also Canada’s national SIGINT agency (Part A) and authorized to acquire and use information from the global information infrastructure for the purpose of providing foreign intelligence, in accordance with Government of Canada intelligence priorities.

What does that mean?

It means that CSE provides foreign signals intelligence to the Government in response to the priorities the Government has identified. CSE only targets foreign entities and communications, and in fact is prohibited by law from targeting Canadians or anyone in Canada under the signals intelligence part of our mandate.

We collect intelligence based on priorities set by the Government, which are issued to us in a Directive from the Minister of National Defence. By targeting and intercepting foreign communications, decrypting or decoding them, and analyzing their content to see what they reveal, we help inform the Government of Canada on matters of security, national defence and international affairs in accordance with those priorities.

The complex nature of our operating environment—both in terms of the interconnected global communications network and of the foreign targets themselves – means we must design and use highly sophisticated targeting, collection, and analytic (including cryptanalysis or codebreaking) techniques. Government departments and ministers use the resulting intelligence to assess motivations, capabilities, and intentions of foreign threats, and to inform the development of policies that are in the interests of the country, and Canadians.

Why signals intelligence?

All governments are responsible for the safety and well-being of their people, their country’s infrastructure, and their national interests. CSE’s foreign signals intelligence helps the Government of Canada meet those important responsibilities by informing its key decision-makers. Much of the intelligence we collect is not available through other means. Signals intelligence provided by CSE is often combined with other information—classified and unclassified—to help provide a comprehensive view and unique insight into the potential threats and issues Canada faces.

For example, CSE’s foreign signals intelligence has played a vital role in:

  • Supporting Canadian military operations, such as the missions in Afghanistan, and protecting our forces against threats.
  • Uncovering foreign-based extremists’ efforts to attract, radicalize, and train individuals to carry out attacks in Canada and abroad.
  • Providing early warning to thwart foreign cyber threats to Government of Canada and critical information infrastructure and networks.
  • Identifying and helping to defend the country against the actions of hostile foreign intelligence agencies.
  • Furthering Canada’s national interests in the world by providing context about global events and crises, and informing the Government’s foreign policy.

Why so secret?

CSE strives to be as open and transparent as it can be. However, we keep secrets because we are required to by law. CSE employees are permanently bound by secrecy under the Security of Information Act, and the law prohibits the unauthorized public disclosure of certain information for reasons of national security.

There are many important reasons why CSE cannot disclose classified information. Keeping certain information secret is necessary and it is essential for the successful delivery of the signals intelligence activities mandated by the Government. The more that is known about our targets, methods, techniques, and partnerships, the harder it is to do our work effectively. If information about sensitive signals intelligence capabilities were to fall into the wrong hands, we would be passing our playbook to those who seek to do us harm, allowing them to evade detection. In addition to reducing the effectiveness of hard-won and costly capabilities, this exposure could lead to serious consequences for Canadians, including the safety of our personnel.

The complexities of a rapidly changing interconnected and globalized world challenges CSE to keep pace with targets and technology. Our continued success depends on our intelligence targets being unaware of our interest in them and uncertain of our methods used against them.

Targeted foreign intelligence

CSE’s signals intelligence mandate and operations are clearly and carefully targeted, by law, to the activities of foreign individuals, states, organizations or terrorist groups that have implications for Canada’s international affairs, defence or security. CSE does not have the mandate or authority to monitor the private communications of Canadians. More emphatically, in our foreign intelligence work, it is against the law for CSE to target Canadians anywhere, or anyone in Canada. We also can’t ask our allies to do anything on our behalf that is not legal for us to do.

However, in the course of targeting foreign entities outside Canada in an interconnected and highly networked world, it is possible that we may incidentally intercept Canadian communications or information. The National Defence Act acknowledges that this may happen and provides for the Minister of National Defence to authorize foreign intelligence collection activities that could risk this interception. If, in conducting these authorized foreign intelligence collection activities, a private communication is incidentally intercepted (e.g. a foreign individual we are targeting overseas is communicating with someone in Canada), CSE must and does take steps to protect the privacy of that information.

While CSE cannot and does not target Canadians or persons in Canada in its foreign signals intelligence work, CSE’s capabilities may, under the Assistance Mandate, be employed by national security or law enforcement agencies in a variety of circumstances—including intercept operations against a Canadian or individuals in Canada. In those cases, CSE is acting in an assistance role, is operating under the requesting agency’s legal authority (such as a warrant) and is subject to the provisions of their mandate and policies.

In all of its work, CSE is held to account by various legal, policy, review, and compliance mechanisms, including independent review by the CSE Commissioner. Additionally, CSE’s dedicated workforce operates within a strong values-based culture, and privacy is a key guiding value and principle, as well as a legal requirement.