Security concerns still in the shadows

Mar 17, 2016

Debate over access to an encrypted cell phone message raises issues so fundamental to U.S. national security that the two of President Obama’s most senior officials are campaigning at cross purposes. While FBI Director James Comey is going head-to-head with Apple to create a back door to the iPhone, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter is telling Silicon Valley that public encryption is essential.

The FBI wants access to the cell phone of a San Bernardino terrorist attacker to learn who he was in contact with prior to the December 2 mass shooting that killed 14 and wounded 22 people. Apple  argues that to comply would undermine consumer confidence in their flagship product and lead to more demands for access from police and other public safety and security agencies. Carter insists that ironclad security systems, often using off-the-shelf components, are essential to the integrity of military operations.     

The debate is playing out in full view of the public, including America's global allies and adversaries. 

Meanwhile in Canada, public attention to these issues is spotty. Apart from a couple of U.S. network or newswire stories, little coverage has been carried here – and almost nothing from a Canadian angle. Yet the issues are similar, if not identical.

Why is this not a bigger issue in Canada? For one thing, it’s a political loser. A quick check in Hansard shows few references to encryption since a Senate Committee on public safety and security was active in the late 1990s. Even then, the emphasis was on its impact on the free flow of commerce.

The issues surfaced briefly around efforts by the Harper government to introduce legislation to give police and security agencies “lawful access” to private communications. The measures were obscured within a bill whose title appeared to arm police against child pornography.  Although Public Safety Minister Vic Toews challenged parliament to support the bill or “stand … with the child pornographers”, it was stillborn.

Even the furor over Edward Snowden’s revelations that Western intelligence agencies were mining ‘metadata’ to discover patterns of association among terrorism suspects failed to ignite a sustained discussion in Canada.

British parliamentary tradition is one explanation. Canadian public affairs are founded on that  tradition. It comes with an acceptance of state security that has had no equal in the American experience.     

People might also point to the disintegration of corporately-owned news and information media. Newsrooms in both Canada and the U.S. are being vacated at an unprecedented rate as disruptive digital technology creates platforms that draw advertisers away from the established outlets.     

So far, the new Liberal government has been mute on most matters relating to national security. The silence has prompted two high-ranking former security intelligence officials to write an open letter urging the government to pay attention to a range of issues, including the encryption debate. An all-Canadian discussion of the need for lawful access to intercept communications is overdue, according to the letter from former Canada Border Services president Luc Portelance and Ray Boisvert, a former Assistant Director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, who was in charge of all analytical products used to advise the federal government.

The Prime Minister's mandate letter to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale placed priority on establishing parliamentary review of departments and agencies with national security responsibilities. It instructed Goodale to seek repeal of “the problematic elements” of Bill C-51. This was Harper’s last-ditch effort to assist CSIS and others to disrupt terror plots, make it easier for police to limit the movements of a suspect, expand no-fly list powers, crack down on terrorist propaganda, and remove barriers to sharing security-related information. 

Goodale’s instructions emphasized balancing collective security with individual rights and freedoms. It made no mention of plugging gaps in the previous government’s counter-terrorism coverage. 

National security had always been a secondary concern of Canadian governments until something drastic has happened to change the political calculus. The 1985 Air India bombing is the prime example. Even with the deaths of 329 people, including 268 Canadians, it took until 2006 to convene a public inquiry into what was called “a cascading series of errors” by CSIS and the RCMP that allowed the attack to happen. 

Likewise, little notice has been paid to the recent revelation that Canada’s security partners in the U.S., U.K.  Australia and New Zealand were getting access to metadata without Canadian identities having been stripped out. The issue went away when the oversight was explained as a lack of due diligence.

In the absence of political support, security officials have lived in the shadows of public inattention. That helps to explain why to this day, more than 30 years after the creation of CSIS, its role is still misunderstood and regularly confused with police powers of arrest and detention.

Whatever the issue: encryption, terrorist apprehension, home-grown recruitment, data sharing or monitoring the movements of returning Canadian jihadists, the government has given little indication that its focus will change, at least until something else serious happens. 

Phil Gibson has consulted in public safety, security and defense communications since leaving government a decade ago.