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communications security establishment

Communications Security Establishment Canada

The Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC or CSE) (Centre de la sécurité des télécommunications Canada) (CSTC or CST) is the Canadian government's national cryptologic intelligence agency. Administered under the Department of National Defence (DND), it is charged with the duty of keeping track of foreign signals intelligence (SIGINT), and protecting Canadian government electronic information and communication networks. The CSE is accountable to the Minister of National Defence through two deputy ministers, one of whom is responsible for Administration, the other Policy and Operations. The Minister of National Defence is in turn accountable to the Cabinet and Parliament.


The CSE was established in 1946 as the Communications Branch of the National Research Council (CBNRC), and was transferred to the DND in 1975 by Order-in-Council. The origins of the CSE can be traced back to the Second World War where the civilian organization worked with intercepted foreign electronic communications, collected largely from the Canadian Signal Corps station at Rockcliffe airport in Ottawa. This unit successfully decrypted, translated, and analyzed these foreign signals, and turned that raw information into useful intelligence reports during the course of the war.

The CSE and the information it gathered and shared was secret for 34 years, when the CBC program the fifth estate did a story on the organization, resulting in an outcry in the Canadian House of Commons and an admission by the Canadian government that the organization existed. The CSE is now publicly known, and occupies several buildings in Ottawa, including the well-known Edward Drake Building and the neighbouring Sir Leonard Tilley Building.

During the Cold War, CSE was primarily responsible for providing SIGINT data to the Department of National Defence regarding the military operations of the Soviet Union. Since then, CSE has diversified and now is the primary SIGINT resource in Canada. The CSE also provides technical advice, guidance and services to the Government of Canada to maintain the security of its information and information infrastructures.

In early 2008, in line with the Federal Identity Program (FIP) of the Government of Canada, which requires all federal agencies to have the word Canada in their name, CSE changed its name to Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) or (Centre de la sécurité des télécommunications Canada) (CSTC).


Unique within Canada's security and intelligence community, the Communications Security Establishment employs code-makers and code-breakers (cryptanalysis) to provide the Government of Canada with information technology security (IT Security) and foreign signals intelligence services. CSE also provides technical and operational assistance to federal law enforcement and security agencies.


CSE’s SIGINT program produces intelligence that responds to Canadian government requirements. The CSE collects foreign intelligence that can be used by the government for strategic warning, policy formulation, decision-making in the fields of national security and national defence, and day-to-day assessment of foreign capabilities and intentions. The success of this process is founded on CSE’s understanding of the leading-edge technologies used by the global information infrastructure. CSE relies on its closest foreign intelligence allies, the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand to share the collection burden and the resulting intelligence yield. Canada is a substantial beneficiary of the collaborative effort within the partnership to collect and report on foreign communications.

During the Cold War, CSE’s primary client for signals intelligence was National Defence, and its focus was the military operations of the then Soviet Union. Since the end of the Cold War, Government of Canada requirements have evolved to include a wide variety of political, defence, and security issues of interest to a much broader range of client departments.

While these continue to be key intelligence priorities for Government of Canada decision-makers, increasing focus on protecting the safety of Canadians is prompting greater interest in intelligence on transnational issues, including terrorism.

IT Security

Formerly known as communications security (COMSEC), the CSE’s IT Security Program grew out of a need to protect sensitive information transmitted by various agencies of the government, especially the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), DND, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). As a result of this critical and urgent need, the IT Security Program’s strategic stance has made possible a shift to that of a predictive nature allowing the program to provide relevant knowledge based upon sound practices and forward looking solutions.

The CSE’s IT Security Program has earned highly valued global respect and a reputation of technical excellence. It now extends its expertise past its traditional technical clients to those within the Government of Canada who are responsible for the formulation and implementation of policy and program managers, and is committed to ensuring cyber networks and critical infrastructures are trustworthy and secure. CSE also conducts research and development on behalf of the Government of Canada in fields related to communications security.


In December 2001 the Canadian government passed omnibus bill C-36 into law as the Anti-terrorism Act. The new act amended portions of the National Defence Act and officially recognized CSE's three-part mandate:

  • To acquire and use information from the global information infrastructure for the purpose of providing foreign intelligence, in accordance with Government of Canada intelligence priorities.
  • To provide advice, guidance and services to help ensure the protection of electronic information and of information infrastructures of importance to the Government of Canada.
  • To provide technical and operational assistance to federal law enforcement and security agencies in the performance of their lawful duties.

The Anti-Terrorism Act also strengthened CSE's capacity to engage in the war on terrorism by providing needed authorities to fulfill its mandate.

CSE is forbidden, by law, to intercept domestic communications. When intercepting communications between a domestic and foreign source, the domestic communications are destroyed or otherwise ignored (however, after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, the CSE's powers expanded to allow the interception of foreign communications that begin or end in Canada, as long as the other party is outside the border and Ministerial authorization is issued specifically for this case and purpose). CSE is bound by all Canadian laws, including the Criminal Code of Canada, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the Privacy Act.


Under the 1948 UKUSA agreement, CSE's intelligence is shared with the United States National Security Agency (NSA), the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the Australian Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) and New Zealand's Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB). Along with these services from the United States, the UK, New Zealand and Australia, CSE is believed to form the ECHELON system. Its capabilities are suspected to include the ability to monitor a large proportion of the world's transmitted civilian telephone, fax and data traffic. The intercepted data, or "dictionaries" are "reported linked together through a high-powered array of computers known as ‘Platform’.


There has been some criticism over the years of the CSE. A former employee of the organization, Mike Frost, claimed in a 1994 book, Spyworld, that the agency eavesdropped on Margaret Trudeau to find out if she smoked marijuana and that the CSE monitored two of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher's dissenting cabinet ministers in London on behalf of the UK's secret service.

In 2006, CTV Montreal’s program On Your Side, conducted a three-part documentary on the CSE naming it “Canada’s most secretive spy agency” and that “this ultra-secret agency has now become very powerful”, conducting unlawful surveillance by monitoring phone calls, e-mails, chat groups, radio, microwave, and satellite.

In 2007, former Ontario lieutenant-governor, James Bartleman, testified at the Air India Inquiry on May 3 that he saw a CSE communications intercept warning of the June 22, 1985 bombing of Air India Flight 182 before it occurred. Two former CSE employees, Bill Sheahan (CSE Client Relations Officer) and Pierre LaCompte (CSE Liaison Officer), have since testified that no CSE report was ever produced.

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