SIGINT clearly a growing business

Canada’s signals intelligence agency, the Communications Security Establishment, experienced a significant ramp-up in requests for technical and operational assistance in the last few years.

In 2021-2022, there was particular emphasis on Eastern Europe and the implications of Russia’s “special military operation” against Ukraine – now in its 17th month. The report said CSE's cyber centre notified Ukraine of hostile cyberactivity against its national infrastructure and points of vulnerability and with tensions continuing to build in Eastern Europe and that “the orders are still in effect and CSE’s assistance is ongoing.”

Among other things, Defence Minister Anita Anand, who used her foreword to underscore the need for Canadians to be “clear-eyed about the threats we face”, signed two ministerial orders only 20 days after Russia’s invasion began, extending the services of its agency to warn Ukraine – as well as Latvia on the other side of Belarus – about cyberthreats from Russia or its ally.

“CSE and its Canadian Centre for Cyber Security are working hard to defend Canada from a wide variety of threats to our national security, our economic security and even our democracy itself, “Anand said. “We must work with all stakeholders, including partners around the world to defend our common interests.”

The CSE has evolved in various stages from Canada’s World War II code-breaking efforts to the point where it has more than 3,000 employees, concentrated mainly around Ottawa, and an annual budget which has grown to some $870 million. In 2022, the latest year covered by the report, it followed through on 59 requests for assistance from the Canadian Armed Forces as well as the RCMP, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the Canada Border Services Agency. That compared with 32 requests in 2021 and 23 in 2020.

Anand’s use of her ministerial authority through the 2019 Communications Security Establishment Act to help Ukraine and Latvia was the first applied to foreign security systems. With tensions continuing to build in Eastern Europe, the report notes that “the orders are still in effect and CSE’s assistance is ongoing.” CSE has rotated personnel to Latvia, where the CAF has deployed about 800 members to the 10-country NATO Battle Group in Latvia led by Canada as part of the alliance’s Enhanced Forward Presence to deter further possible military action.

On the domestic front, CSE reported that it blocked a daily average of 6.3 billion “malicious actions” of various scales against the federal government by criminal entities, hackers and others trying to exploit vulnerabilities.

Caroline Xavier, appointed in August 2022 as the SE’s 11th Chief, noted that “as always, there are parts of our work that we cannot share in a public report” so “we don’t identify specific targets of our signals intelligence gathering or foreign cyber operations.”

(Xavier brought a broad background in security-related matters to the CSE, including Associate Deputy Minister of Immigration, Refugees & Citizenship since February 2020 and before that nearly three years as Assistant Secretary to the Cabinet for Security & Intelligence at the Privy Council Office. Earlier in her 30-year career, she had worked at the Canada Border Services Agency, the Revenue and Industry Departments and at the CSE.)

Despite keeping operational details “classified,” her first report does confirm that its efforts to “disrupt and remove harmful terrorist content disseminated online by foreign, ideologically-motivated extremists […] significantly reduced their online reach and ability to recruit new members.”

The report cautions that other countries “are attempting to influence and interfere with Canada’s society and democracy” through, among other things, disinformation campaigns and it specifically references China’s activities against its global diaspora.

“Authoritarian states use a variety of means to monitor and intimidate diaspora populations around the world,” it says. “An example of this is the issue of the People’s Republic of China operating ‘police service stations’ in Canada.”

Xavier said CSE’s mandate includes countering “some of the toughest national security challenges we face, from hostile state activity like foreign interference to cybercrime” and she used the report as a recruiting tool.

“We are in growth mode,” she said. “This means trying new things, like bringing in candidates at different security levels and offering telework options outside the National Capital Region. If you know a Canadian who is looking for a career that truly matters, send them our new recruitment video.”