This piece appeared in The Hill Times on January 14, 2019
I realize that CSIS is not well understood by most Canadians and this is of course partly by design. It is, after all, an intelligence service and it has secrets it does not want to disclose. What intelligence agency flings its doors open for all to gawk?
This is undoubtedly frustrating to many in our fair land and I can understand that. For what it is worth, I have been advocating for slightly more openness for years and I am happy that the new Director, David Vigneault, has given at least one speech on what keeps him up at night (he spoke at the Economic Club of Canada on December 4 last year): here’s hoping there are more to come.
The lack of transparency leads on occasion to some pretty wacky theories about what CSIS actually does though. I recall hearing colleagues tell me about the times when ‘visitors’ to our headquarters had to be gently convinced that no, CSIS was not reading their thoughts and that the organization was not the devil incarnate.
Nevertheless, you still come across some very strange ideas about CSIS’ activities and some of these are found within otherwise respectable institutions. Here is a good example. The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs does really good work as far as I am concerned, but a recent report in the Toronto Star had me scratching my head. In noting that the Service was seeking to hire a “network exploitation analyst” to assist the agency in “cyber investigative activities,” – i.e. a hacker – the Director of the Lab, Ronald Deibert, expressed concern since “practically speaking, CSIS hacking could include computer network interference in a foreign election process, compromising the integrity of important digital tools that Canadians rely on for everyday privacy and security, creating fake online personas and using them to spread disinformation and more.”
Really? CSIS would interfere in foreign elections and create fake online personas to spread disinformation?? Has CSIS suddenly become like the Russian spy agencies? Am I missing something here? I worked there for a decade and a half and although I have been gone for five years I am pretty sure those are not activities CSIS has engaged in, is engaging in or will ever engage in. Never say never but I am really struggling to imagine a scenario where any of these acts are deemed okay.
Preposterous stories like these are not helpful. Need I remind everyone and especially the folks at the Citizen Lab that CSIS is subject to enormous oversight and must act in accordance with all Canadian laws. Yes, it probably has to get more aggressive in doing what it can to keep us safe from terrorists and foreign spies – hence the flier for a hacker – but it sure as heck is not going to fix elections or hoodwink Canadians.
I concur that we as Canadians must hold CSIS to the highest standard of oversight given what it does and how it does it. I do think we do that fairly well although there is always room for improvement. Nevertheless, some things must always remain beyond the ken of the average Canadian, including the hard working souls at the Citizen Lab (sorry guys!), but we can call for a few more peeks into the national security infrastructure.
As for Director Deibert, shame on you for going to the nth degree of paranoia! You and your staff should be better than that. Descending to conspiracy theory unnecessarily raises fear and anxiety among Canadians. Those we do not need.
If you are still unconvinced by my assurances Mr. Deibert I am sure I can find a nice aluminum foil hat for you.
Phil Gurski is a former strategic analyst at CSIS and the President/CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting in Ottawa.