Keep your spies out of my computer

All the talk recently about Canadians being spied on by our own government agencies got me thinking about my days as a so-called spy when I eavesdropped on the Russians during  the Cold War back in the 1960s.  I was a  Radioman Special with the Royal Canadian Navy with a top-level security clearance.  With the integration of the Canadian Forces in 1996 the name was changed to Communicator Research Operator, the same name used today for military personnel with Communications Security Establishment Canada, which has been in the news a lot over the past year or so.

CFS Inuvik, Northwest Territories
CFS Inuvik, Northwest Territories – Click picture to enlarge

When I finished Radioman Special training at HMCS Gloucester I was posted to  Inuvik in the Northwest Territories which is located on the east channel of the Mackenzie Delta, approximately 100 kilometres from the Arctic Ocean. The land of the midnight sun and the noon moon where the northern lights dance on rooftops and Jack Frost snaps at exposed cheeks.

Inuvik was one of several northern military bases set up to intercept Russian communications. Our base was in the town on the same street as the RCMP,  the local radio station and the post office. The building where we worked and the nearby antennas used to pull down Russian signals were out on the tundra a short ride by bus in summer and in a passenger snowmobile in winter.

Today, as in my day, the Canadian military’s eavesdropping is cloaked in secrecy, hidden from public view behind a wall of “matters of national security.” Secrecy was drilled into me like “left right” on the parade square. You knew what you needed to know, which included limits on sharing information with your work colleagues if they didn’t need to know it. A Master Corporal in an online Communicator Research Operator recruiting video  sums it up: “We are cleared to the highest levels of national security. It’s never boring but you don’t go home at the end of your shift and tell your kids what happened at work today.”

Of course today’s technology is far more advanced than in my day, like the difference between an ant hill and a mountain, and the job of a Communicator Research Operator has changed a lot, to say the least. When I was monitoring Russian communications they were using Morse code and I pounded out the intercepted messages on a manual typewriter.

The online recruiting video I mentioned earlier says today’s Communicator Research Operators, “use the world’s most sophisticated electronic equipment to intercept and analyze electronic transmissions and computer data, including foreign communications.”

Allegations they’ve been using that sophisticated equipment to snoop on Canadians, which they are not supposed to do, has caused quite a stir.

Documents released by Edward Snowdon, a former contractor with the United States National Security Agency (NSA), raise allegations CSEC was monitoring the private conversations of Canadian citizens. CSEC is the Canadian equivalent of NSA and they have always been close allies.

According to a story published in The Huffington Post Canada in January 2014, CSEC admitted it has spied on Canadians –   Surveillance Agency Admits It ‘Incidentally’ Spies On Canadians.

I must admit that I listened in on some private overseas telephone calls when I was in the service up North, especially during the graveyard shift when things were slow.

My primary assignment was to monitor Russian air defence communications, a control station with a spiderweb of out-stations. When air defence was silent I sometimes tuned in civil air activity. During the short Arctic summer when shipping lanes were open I sometimes monitored Russian ship traffic.

The most thrilling part of my job was when the Americans sent a spy plane to skirt Russian airspace and my Russian air defence network tracked it. It really got exciting when the Russians scrambled MiGs to intercept the spy plane. Shift supervisors would watch over my shoulders as my fingers pounded the keys on the metal typewriter as the dots and dashes of Morse code fired off by the Russian operators were transformed into letters and numbers on carbon copy paper. The spy planes always returned home safely. But we all knew the story of Gary Powers, the pilot of an American U-2 spyplane shot down in Russian airspace in 1960.

CFS Alert, Nunavut
CFS Alert, Nunavut – Click picture to enlarge

Inuvik and all the other northern military intercept stations, except for Alert, had closed before the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. I was back in civvies long before then and was working as a journalist. My days as an electronic spy were long gone, and seldom remembered until CSEC hit the news with reports of spying on Canadians.

According to a recent poll reported in The Huffington Post Canada  the majority of Canadians who have posted personal data online expect their personal information to remain confidential and private.

A recent ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada says police need a search warrant to get information from Internet service providers about their subscribers’ identities when they are under investigation. There are reports that internet providers have been handing over personal data on thousands of Canadians to government authorities without warrants for years.

It’s been reported that the court decision could spell trouble for two conservative government bills – Bill C-13 and Bill S-4 – that would expand access to subscribers’ information without a search warrant.

Documents released by Edward Snowdon have  helped heighten the debate over Internet privacy as well as provide Canadians with an insight into how CSEC works.  A CBC news story published earlier this year says that, according to a survey done in October of 2013, seven in 10 Canadians support Snowdon. According to reports of polling done in the United States most Americans consider Snowdon to be more of a whistleblower than a traitor.

As an investigative journalist and an author I value the contributions whistleblowers have made in exposing wrongdoings, especially by people we trust to do right by us.

Back in the late 1960s during heated debate over the massive Criminal Law Amendment Act introduced by the then Liberal government,  former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau stated “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.”

I think the appropriate phrase for today might be something like “There’s no place for the state in the computers of the nation without a search warrant.”

Gerry Jones is a member of the CWA Canada Retirees Council. The closest thing he does to spying nowadays is eye the action on the football field at a Saskatchewan Roughriders game through his binoculars.