Threats Within: Canada’s spy service boosts attention to ‘ideological’ domestic extremism

Click to play video: 'Trucker protests: Police deemed Ottawa convoy national security threat week before Emergencies Act'
Trucker protests: Police deemed Ottawa convoy national security threat week before Emergencies Act
Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner Thomas Carrique told the House of Commons’ Public Safety Committee on Thursday that police deemed the so-called “Freedom Convoy” a threat to national security one week before the federal government invoked the Emergencies Act. – Mar 24, 2022

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service now devotes almost as much attention to “ideological” domestic extremism as they do religiously-motivated terrorism, marking a paradigm shift in the spy agency’s priorities.

Documents reviewed by Global News suggests CSIS has gone from closing its right-wing extremism desk in 2016 to spending almost as much time and resources tracking “ideological” domestic extremism as religious terrorist groups like Daesh and al-Qaeda in 2021.

Read more: Where’s ‘freedom’ from here? Canada’s convoy protests are over, but the anger remains

“Ideologically” motivated violent extremism (IMVE) — the service’s catch-all term, which includes far-right and white supremacist-motivated violence — is “fast approaching parity with the threat from religiously-motivated violent extremism in terms of investigative resources deployed” in Canada, CSIS Director David Vigneault wrote in late 2021.

“The pandemic has been seized upon by extremists, who are exploiting the situation to spread disinformation, amplify anti-authority narratives, and promote acts of violence,” Vigneault wrote in a letter to Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino in late 2021, adding IMVE “disproportionately targets equity-deserving groups in Canada.”

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“CSIS is actively investigating IMVE threats, and when appropriate, mitigating these threats through the use of threat reduction measures.”

Despite the renewed attention to right-wing extremism — in the past CSIS devoted resources to tracking far-right groups before the 9/11 attacks dramatically shifted Western intelligence priorities — Vigneault warned Mendicino the agency’s ability to keep up with the “evolving” threat is at risk.

CSIS has repeatedly asked the government to update its powers, after a series of high-profile confrontations with the Federal Court and increasing public appeals from Vigneault himself.

Read more: CSIS sees ‘unprecedented’ increase in violent online rhetoric during COVID

“Simply put, CSIS’ authorities have not kept pace with technology and the threat environment. As a result, the service’s ability to effectively meet the government’s intelligence needs, as well as Canadians’ expectations, is diminishing,” Vigneault warned.

“To ensure public understanding and support, the work to modernize CSIS’ authorities must be transparent. Canadians have a right to know why … CSIS should collect, exploit and use data to advance its national security investigations and why CSIS needs tailored warrant powers. A well-informed public discussion on what is needed for CSIS to protect Canada and Canadians in the 21st century will ensure continued trust by the public in CSIS.”

Despite the dire picture painted by the CSIS director, and the government’s rhetoric around addressing the threat of domestic extremism, granting intelligence agencies greater authority to investigate domestic threats can be a controversial exercise.

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Mendicino’s office did not respond to Global’s questions as of press time.

Old threats, new methods

If CSIS was looking for a case study to emphasize Vigneault’s warning in late 2021, they could do worse than the convoy protests that paralyzed Ottawa and multiple Canada-U.S. border crossings last February.

While convoy defenders loudly proclaim the illegal protests were non-violent, the Ontario Provincial Police determined the Ottawa occupation to be a national security threat as early as Feb. 7. The federal government invoked emergency powers the following week to allow police to freeze convoy funding and clear the protests.

Click to play video: 'Ontario MPP Randy Hillier says he didn’t assault officer after police lay charges'
Ontario MPP Randy Hillier says he didn’t assault officer after police lay charges

The online nature of the physical occupation, where organizers broadcasted their manifestos and intentions publicly and livestreamed their participation, led to criticism that police and intelligence agencies didn’t identify the threat they posed or failed to take the organizers’ aims seriously. If journalists and anti-hate activists could identify the prime movers in the convoy and their intentions, why couldn’t the much better-resourced police and intelligence agencies?

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Stephanie Carvin, a former CSIS analyst who now teaches at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, said the service has concerns about how much information they can collect from the open internet.

That’s an issue, given how much far-right activity, organization and networking happens in online spaces. At the same time, how would Canadians react if their domestic security agents were seen monitoring message boards and Telegram channels for extremist activity?

“There’s real, legitimate concern about the amount of online collection we want our national security services engaging in. There’s real concerns over privacy, freedom of speech,” Carvin said in an interview.

“So we need to balance those concerns with the nature of the threat. And the best way to do that is through democratic legislation, not the security services trying to wing it, because they’ve had their knuckles rapped multiple times by the (Federal Court).”

CSIS seeks “basic subscriber information,” tailored warrants

In his letter to Mendicino, Vigneault was specific about the type of powers the agency wants.

“As more threat activities occur online, so too must CSIS investigations. This is particularly true for the (ideologically-motivated) threat. In such an environment, CSIS needs to be able to obtain basic subscriber information (BSI) in a timely fashion to identify the actors behind harmful online content,” Vigneault wrote.

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“Basic subscriber information” is commonly referred to as “phone book data” by cops. It includes things like an account holder’s name, address, internet protocol (IP) address, telephone number, email and the identity of their local service provider.

Read more: COVID-19 ‘most disruptive event’ since 9/11 for Canadian intelligence: CSIS deputy director

While authorities downplay the significance of BSI from a privacy perspective, privacy advocates and researchers have long held the information can be paired with other data to paint more detailed pictures of an intelligence target or criminal suspect.

“Currently, the warrant authorization regime in the CSIS Act does not distinguish between a warrant for less intrusive techniques (e.g., obtaining BSI) and one for more intrusive collection (e.g., intercepting communications),” Vigneault wrote.

“In a fast-paced online threat environment, the requirements for a full warrant cause delays in collecting BSI that can severely inhibit investigations and collection opportunities. The service would benefit from tailored judicial requirements that protect privacy while adapting to the shift in technology.”

Barbara Perry, one of Canada’s foremost researchers on far-right and white supremacist movements, questioned whether CSIS truly needs new powers to track domestic extremism — something an increasingly large group of open source researchers have had little trouble doing in recent years without the resources of a modern intelligence service.

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“I mean, there were certainly no qualms about surveilling Muslims,” Perry said, referring to post-9/11 intelligence gathering.

“It really is interesting that now they’re concerned about needing additional powers, rather than using the powers that they already have.”

Read more: Canada’s public safety minister draws direct tie between Coutts, Ottawa protests

Perry noted that thanks to the work of anti-hate campaigners and some journalists, information about some of the more prominent Canadian organizers and “influencers” in the far-right space are well-known and publicly identified. These people talk incessantly about their beliefs online. They aren’t hard to find.

Carvin agreed with Perry’s broader point, but argued the nature of the threat from modern far-right extremism, and their methods of organization, are different than the kind of extremism that previously preoccupied the service.

While civil society groups like the Canada Anti-Hate Network and journalists can collect “intelligence” on ideologically-motivated extremist groups in Canada, Carvin noted that, unlike CSIS, they don’t have to contend with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in their work.

For Carvin, the issue isn’t about giving intelligence agencies sweeping new powers to monitor domestic internet chatter, or to turn the full force of domestic spy powers on far-right streamers. It’s about having a broader discussion with Canadians about what they’re comfortable with intelligence agencies doing in their name.

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“It’s not about giving the national security services everything they’re asking for. It’s about setting the lines of what we are comfortable with,” Carvin said.

“We’re going to have to start having these conversations.”

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