Top Secret: Canada's Spy Agencies

Top Secret: Canada's Spy Agencies
  By Stephanie Coolen

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Canada's not exactly the place you think of when it comes to the world of espionage but we do have several players in today's spygame. If you're interested in a career that involves codebreaking and surveillance then pay close attention to these employers and you may wind up earning a paycheck signed with invisible ink!

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) investigates and reports on threats to the security of Canada. In short, terrorism and espionage are the two major threats that CSIS investigates. CSIS has no police powers however, they do work with various police forces on investigations that have both national security and criminal implications. Although CSIS can offer assistance to the police, it cannot conduct criminal investigations, and it requires warrants for electronic surveillance, mail opening and covert searches. For more information on CSIS visit

There's another spy agency in Canada but you probably haven't heard of it. The Canadian Security Establishment (CSE) has been linked to investigating high-tech espionage worldwide. It handles signals intelligence from foreign radio, radar and other electronic emissions and monitors e-mails and faxes searching for threats to Canada's national security.

CSE is an ultra-secret wing of the Defence Department with headquarters in a plain Ottawa office building. Reports indicate that it works closely with the National Security Agency (NSA), its much larger U.S. equivalent. The main areas of the CSE that intrigue most are ECHELON, SIGINT and Cryptanalysis.

ECHELON helps process huge amounts of data collected by monitoring satellites, microwave radio relays, undersea cables and the Internet. It searches for hints of terrorist plots, drug-dealer's plans and political and diplomatic intelligence.

The ECHELON system is controversial because it operates "Dictionary" computers that store lists of targets, including names, telephone numbers, addresses and subjects of interest. Whenever a "Dictionary" encounters an intercepted phone call, fax, e-mail or other message containing a key word or number, it automatically transmits it to the interested member agency. Sources say the vast majority of intercepted messages are discarded.

Canada's national Signals Intelligence organization (SIGINT) "provides government with the information it needs to do its business," is as much as one source will offer. "The specifics of that mission we can't talk about."

So, they're good at keeping secrets, but people driving past CFS Leitrim where SIGINT is housed just outside the city of Ottawa, can catch a glimpse of several weird-looking structures. On one side, there's a large, windowless building, a pair of three-story white globes and two smaller buildings referred to as "golf balls." The surrounding fields are filled with red-and-white poles with wires strung from them.

Not exactly your typical office. The "golf balls" actually house satellite dishes while the poles and wires comprise a radio antennae array. The windowless building contains an enclosure electromagnetically shielded so radio waves cannot get in or out. You can only enter through an airlock door system that has 13 electrically operated, shielded doors.

All that's known about SIGINT's employees is that they collect, analyse and report on foreign communications systems, intercepting radio signals, Morse

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