March 16, 2017 5:19 am
Updated: March 16, 2017 6:51 am

Canadian cyberspies look to the skies for security help at new headquarters in Ottawa

Canada's secretive cyberspies have turned to the people who pat travellers down at the airport to bolster security at their new Ottawa headquarters amid heightened concern about sensitive leaks. A CATSA employee performs security checks of passengers and their carry-on luggage at a security screening area at Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C., in a February 6, 2017, file photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward


OTTAWA – Canada’s secretive cyberspies have turned to the people who pat travellers down at the airport to bolster security at their new Ottawa headquarters amid heightened concern about sensitive leaks.

The Communications Security Establishment had the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority – the agency that does air-passenger screening – teach spy service staff how to use hand-held wands as well as newly installed metal detectors and X-ray machines.

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A memorandum of understanding that sets out details of the September 2015 training was recently released under the Access to Information Act.

The instruction came as CSE employees were settling into their new workspaces at the expansive Edward Drake building in the city’s east end – a gleaming facility that replaced the agency’s aging south Ottawa quarters.

The CSE monitors foreign communications of intelligence interest to Canada, and exchanges a large amount of information with “Five Eyes” partner agencies in the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

READ MORE: ‘Loss of faith’ from spy allies possible if Canada proceeds with court disclosure: CSE official

The airport-style screening devices were seen as “essential tools to enhance our security posture,” said Ryan Foreman, a CSE spokesman.

“Although CSE had many security measures in place at our previous facilities, this particular equipment was new to CSE and was included as one of the many security measures in place at our new facility.”

Six spy service employees were taught how to operate the devices and recognize images that turned up on X-ray screens.

READ MORE: Why is Canada’s privacy czar worried about the country’s cyber-spying agency? (and what’s she doing about it?)

The session – provided free of charge – was a “train-the-trainer” course intended to qualify the CSE participants to later teach other personnel about the new equipment.

The memorandum refers to screening of “individuals entering premises,” but Foreman declined to elaborate on whether people leaving CSE are also subjected to examinations. “To ensure that our security measures remain effective, we cannot provide any further detail about how these tools are used or how they are deployed.”

READ MORE: CSE monitors your emails to the government: What you need to know

Installation of the new screening equipment came months after CSE expressed concern about disclosures by former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, who leaked a vast trove of classified material about “Five Eyes” surveillance techniques.

In March 2015 briefing notes prepared for agency chief Greta Bossenmaier, CSE said Snowden’s revelations about the Canadian agency’s intelligence capabilities and those of its allies “have a cumulative detrimental effect” on CSE operations.

“Our success is hard won and is dependent on our targets being unaware of the methods and technologies that we use against them.”

In 2013, Canadian naval officer Jeffrey Delisle was sentenced to 20 years in prison after pleading guilty to passing classified western intelligence to Russia in exchange for cash on a regular basis for more than four years.

Delisle was able to copy top secret material on to a thumb drive and walk out of a secure building in Halifax.

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