OTTAWA – There was a time when the Communications Security Establishment didn’t want people to know it even existed.
The 70-year-old cyberspy agency is now trying to emerge from the shadows, but a newly released survey suggests it is still little known to Canadians.
On an unaided basis, just three per cent of respondents correctly named “CSE” or the “Communications Security Establishment” as the government agency responsible for intercepting and analyzing foreign communications and helping protect the government’s computer networks, the survey report says.
About one in five people thought the Canadian Security Intelligence Service performed those duties. In reality, CSIS’s main role is investigating threats – such as terrorism and espionage – to Canadian security.
When the Communications Security Establishment, or CSE, was mentioned by name, nearly two in five (37 per cent) said either yes (26 per cent) or maybe (11 per cent) when asked if they had heard of it before, the report says.
Ekos Research Associates conducted 10-minute telephone questionnaires about the CSE with 1,205 Canadian adults in May. The results are considered accurate to within plus or minus 2.8 percentage points, with a 95-per-cent level of confidence.
The $83,000 Ekos survey was commissioned to help the CSE better understand the public’s awareness and attitudes towards the agency and shape communications strategies, as well as to explore views about career opportunities to guide recruitment of new employees.
The Ottawa-based CSE uses highly advanced technology to intercept, sort and analyze foreign communications for nuggets of intelligence interest to the federal government. It is a member of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance that also includes the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
VIDEO: CSEC monitored Wi-Fi signals at Canadian airports
The secretive CSE has been thrust into the headlines in recent years due to leaks by Edward Snowden, the former spy contractor who worked for the National Security Agency, the CSE’s American counterpart.
It has also tried to be more open about its activities – at least to a point – through increased use of social media and participation in public events.
But it seems none of that has made the CSE a household name.
Academia, the media, the government and spy agencies themselves could play a bigger role in informing the public about the security world, said Stephanie Carvin, an assistant professor of international relations at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.
“It’s clear that Canadians aren’t educating themselves on these institutions,” Carvin said.
“We have this reputation for being the peaceable kingdom. People just don’t pay attention because we’re relatively safe.”
VIDEO: What can Canada do to thwart cyberattacks against democratic processes?
When provided a brief description of CSE’s dual interception and protection role, over four in five respondents to the Ekos survey said they considered the agency to be important, including just over half who said the CSE was very important.
The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association is suing the CSE, claiming it breaches the constitutional rights of Canadians by intercepting their private communications. The agency insists it respects privacy and abides by Canadian laws.
Nearly three in four respondents said they either completely (14 per cent) or somewhat trusted (59 per cent) the CSE to act ethically and legally in fulfilling its mandate.
At the same time, 43 per cent said they were concerned about information that government intelligence agencies may be collecting about them.