By JEREMY LOOME
October 29, 2006
On a typical evening, a man in Edmonton gets a phone call from a man in
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
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
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
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.
- - -
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
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.''
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