Communications Security Establishment

Canadian Security Intelligence Service National Security Agency Royal Canadian Mounted Police
Communications Security Establishment
CSEC logo canada.svg
Badge of the Communications Security Establishment. The Latin motto reads "providing and protecting information."
CSE headquarters building
Agency overview
Preceding agency
HeadquartersOttawa, Ontario, Canada
Employees2,549 [1]
Annual budget$711.8 million (2020–21)[2]
Minister responsible
Agency executive
  • Shelly Bruce, Chief
The Sir Leonard Tilley Building, former headquarters of the CSE

The Communications Security Establishment (CSE; French: Centre de la sécurité des télécommunications, CST), formerly called the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), is the Government of Canada's national cryptologic agency. Administered under the Department of National Defence (DND), it is responsible for foreign signals intelligence (SIGINT) and protecting Canadian government electronic information and communication networks. The CSE is accountable to the Minister of National Defence through its deputy head, the Chief of CSE. The Minister of National Defence is in turn accountable to the Cabinet and Parliament. The Agency has recently built a new headquarters and campus encompassing 34 ha (84 acres). The new headquarters totals a little over 110,000 square metres (1.2 million square feet) and is adjacent to CSIS.[3] The Chief of the CSE is currently Shelly Bruce, who assumed the office on June 27, 2018.[4]


The Communications Security Establishment (CSE) was established in 1946 as the Communications Branch of the National Research Council (CBNRC), and was transferred to the DND in 1975 by an Order in Council. The cover was broken by the CBC TV documentary The Fifth Estate: The Espionage Establishment.[5] The origins of 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. CSE also worked with CFS Leitrim (Canadian Forces Station Leitrim), located just south of Ottawa, which is Canada's oldest operational signal intelligence collection station. Established by the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals in 1941 as 1 Special Wireless Station and renamed Ottawa Wireless Station in 1949, CFS Leitrim acquired its current name when the Supplementary Radio System (SUPRAD) was created in 1966. In 1946, the station's complement was 75 personnel. The current strength (2013-2014) is around 2,000 employees.[6] 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.

CSE and the information it gathered and shared was secret for 34 years when, on January 9, 1974, the CBC television documentary entitled "The Fifth Estate: The Espionage Establishment" (produced by William Macadam and research by James Dubro) focused on the organization, resulting in an outcry in the House of Commons of Canada and an admission by the Canadian government that the organization existed.[7] 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.[8] 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.

The Communications Security Establishment created the Canadian System Security Centre in 1988 to establish a Canadian computer security standard among other goals.[9] This led to the publication of the Canadian Trusted Computer Product Evaluation Criteria.[9]

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,[10] CSE adopted the applied title Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) or (French: Centre de la sécurité des télécommunications Canada) (CSTC). Since mid-2014, the organization has used its legal name (Communications Security Establishment) and initials (CSE) on its website and in public statements.

Examination Unit

The Examination Unit was established in June 1941 as a branch of the National Research Council of Canada. At that time the main station for the unit was a house near the Prime Minister's Laurier Avenue residence in Sandy Hill, Ottawa. The unit chose this location because they felt it would draw no suspicion to the enemies. The original mandate of the Examination Unit was to intercept the communications of Vichy France and Germany. Its mandate later expanded to include interception and decryption of Japanese communications after Japan entered World War II. The unit was estimated to have had 50 staff members at any one time. In total 77 people worked there.[11]

In September 1945, U.S. president Truman declared that it was vital that peacetime signal intelligence (SIGINT) operations be carried out. Canadian authorities came to the same conclusion in December of that same year. For this reason, the Examination Unit was renamed the Communications Branch.[12]


CSE uses generic identifiers imposed by the Federal Identity Program. However, CSE is one of several federal departments and agencies (primarily those having law enforcement, security, or regulatory functions) that have been granted a badge by the Canadian Heraldic Authority. The badge was granted in 1994, while CSE's pennant was first raised in 1996 to mark the organization's 50th anniversary.

Former logo of the IT Security program.
The triangle represented threats, while the arc symbolized protection

From the 1990s to the mid 2000s, CSE's Information Technology Security program used a logo to identify its products and publications; the triangle represented threats, while the arc symbolized protection.[13]


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 the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and federal law enforcement and security agencies, including the Canada Border Services Agency and the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority.

Signal intelligence

CSE's SIGINT program produces intelligence that responds to Canadian government requirements. At CFS Leitrim, the main military SIGINT facility in the south end of Ottawa, the establishment 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 station at Leitrim specializes in intercepting electronic communications to and from embassies in Ottawa. Other Canadian military SIGINT facilities are located at: CFB Gander Newfoundland with a detachment from CFS Leitrim, CFS Masset, BC (under remote control from CFS Leitrim) and CFS Alert, Nunavut.

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 and participant of the collaborative effort within the partnership to collect and report on foreign communications.[8]

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.

Code breaking equipment

CSE code breaking capabilities degraded substantially in the 1960s and 1970s but were upgraded with the acquisition of a Cray X-MP/11 (modified) supercomputer delivered to the Sir Leonard Tilley building in March 1985 and the hiring of code breaking analysts. It was, at the time, the most powerful computer in Canada. In the early 1990s, the Establishment purchased a Floating Point Systems FPS 522-EA supercomputer at a cost of $1,620,371. This machine was upgraded to a Cray S-MP superserver after Cray acquired Floating Point Systems in December 1991 and used the Folklore Operating System supplied by the NSA in the US.[14] These machines are now retired.

Little information is available on the types of computers used by the CSE since then. However, Cray in the US has produced a number of improved supercomputers since then. These include the Cray SX-6, early 2000s, the Cray X1, 2003 (development funded in part by the NSA), Cray XD1, 2004, Cray XT3, Cray XT4, 2006, Cray XMt, 2006 and Cray CX1, 2008. It is possible that some of these models have been used by the CSE and are in use today.

The NSA's relationship with Canada's CSEC

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).

In June 2018 Minister Goodale appointed Scott Jones the head of a new Canadian Centre for Cyber Security, an agency within CSE.[15] Elements of other government departments were amalgamated into the Centre, which will eventually have a staff of 750 individuals.[16]


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:

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, 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[17]). CSE is bound by all Canadian laws, including the Criminal Code, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the Privacy Act.


The Office of the Communications Security Establishment Commissioner (OCSEC) was created on June 19, 1996, to review CSE's activities for compliance with the applicable legislation, accept and investigate complaints regarding the lawfulness of the agency's activities, and to perform special duties under the 'Public Interest Defence' clause of the Security of Information Act.[18] The Commissioner provided an annual public report on his activities and findings to Parliament, through the Minister of National Defence.

Between 1996 and 2019, there were six Commissioners:

As part of an omnibus national security bill (the National Security Act, 2017) passed by Parliament in 2019, oversight of CSE activities was assumed by the newly created National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA).[20] NSIRA committee members are appointed by the sitting Prime Minister in consultation with Parliamentary leaders, and handle complaints against all national security agencies. OCSEC was abolished by the creation of NSIRA.

In addition, the new post of Intelligence Commissioner was created, which has oversight of all national security and intelligence gathering activities of the Government of Canada, including CSE.[21] The Intelligence Commissioner issues an annual report to the Prime Minister, who must table it in Parliament after removing confidential and classified information. The Commissioner is entitled to receive all reports which are compiled by NSIRA. The previous Commissioner of CSE, Jean-Pierre Plouffe, was appointed Intelligence Commissioner on July 18, 2019.[22]

New Facilities

With the rapid expansion in the number of CSE personnel since the 9/11 attack in the US, the CSE has built new facilities. A new C$1.2 billion,[23] 72,000 sq. m. facility has been built in the eastern part of Ottawa, immediately west of the headquarters building for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. Construction began in early 2011 and was completed in 2015. Plans indicate that there is a secure physical connection between the two buildings allowing for the passage of personnel between them.[24]

Communications data

In Proceedings of the Canadian Senate Standing Committee on National Security and Defence, CSE Chief John Adams, indicated that the CSE is collecting communications data when he suggested that the legislation was not perfect in regard to interception of information relating to the "envelope".[25]


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 Signals Directorate (ASD) 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'."[26]


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 CSE had monitored two of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher's dissenting cabinet ministers in London on behalf of the UK's secret service.[27]

In 1996, it was suggested that CSE had monitored all communications between National Defence Headquarters and Somalia, and were withholding information from the Somalia Inquiry into the killing of two unarmed Somalis by Canadian soldiers.[28]

In 2006, CTV Montreal's program On Your Side conducted a three-part documentary on CSE naming it "Canada's most secretive spy agency" and that "this ultra-secret agency has now become very powerful", conducting surveillance by monitoring phone calls, e-mails, chat groups, radio, microwave, and satellite.[29]

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 have since testified that no CSE report was ever produced.[30]

In 2013, a coalition of civil liberties associations launched a campaign directed against the government's perceived lack of transparency on issues related to the agency, demanding more information on its purported domestic surveillance activities.[31]

Further criticism has arisen surrounding the construction costs of the agency's new headquarters in Ottawa. The project is slated to cost over $1.1 billion CAD, making it the most expensive government building in Canadian history.[32]

In 2014, a leaked, top-secret presentation entitled “IP Profiling Analytics & Mission Impacts” summarized experiments tracking the cellphones of travellers passing through Toronto Pearson International Airport in Toronto, Canada.[33] Critics argued that the experiment was invasive and indiscriminate, while CSE countered that it was consistent with all relevant laws and mandates.

In 2016, the CSE Commissioner found that one of the agency's metadata activities did not comply with the law. Specifically, CSE had failed to properly minimize certain Canadian identity information before sending it to foreign governments, contravening parts of the National Defence Act and the Privacy Act.[1]

Media portrayal

In The Good Wife episode "Landing," both the NSA and the CSE are shown monitoring personal phone calls and hacking private cell phones' recording devices in order to listen in on personal conversations. One plaintiff describes the CSE as "the Canadian version of the NSA."

See also


  1. ^ "Infographic for Communications Security Establishment Canada".
  2. ^ "Infographic for Communications Security Establishment Canada".
  3. ^
  4. ^ Office of the Prime Minister (June 27, 2018). "The Prime Minister announces changes in the senior ranks of the Public Service". Retrieved July 5, 2018. Shelly Bruce, currently Associate Chief of the Communications Security Establishment, becomes Chief of the Communications Security Establishment, effective immediately.
  5. ^ broadcast Jan 9, 1974, produced by William MacAdam, researched by James R. Dubro.
  6. ^ "CSE: What do we know about Canada's eavesdropping agency? | CBC News".
  7. ^ "Information Kit". Communications Security Establishment Canada. 2012-12-06. Archived from the original on 27 May 2013. Retrieved 4 April 2013. In 1974 the television program "The Fifth Estate" broadcast an exposé of Canadian involvement in signals intelligence. The program revealed the existence of the hitherto low-profile CBNRC, and explored the nature of its signals intelligence program and its US partners. The Fifth Estate's revelations were raised in the House of Commons over the next week. As a result of the unwelcome publicity, the government soon transferred Canada's SIGINT and Communications Security organization to the Department of National Defence portfolio, and renamed it the Communications Security Establishment (CSE).
  8. ^ a b Robinson, Bill (March 1989). "Canada and Signals Intelligence: The Electronic Polar Watch". Ploughshares Monitor: 21–23.
  9. ^ a b Mark S. Merkow; Jim Breithaupt (2014). Information Security: Principles and Practices. Pearson. p. 93–. ISBN 978-0-7897-5325-0.
  10. ^ Federal Identity Program - Programme de coordination de l'image de marque
  11. ^ Pepall, Diana (January 2017). Canada's Bletchley Park: The Examination Unit in Ottawa's Sandy Hill 1941-1945. Ottawa, ON, Canada: Historical Society of Ottawa. ISBN 978-0-920960-43-1.
  12. ^ Rosen Philip (September 1993). "THE COMMUNICATIONS SECURITY ESTABLISHMENT - CANADA'S MOST SECRET INTELLIGENCE AGENCY". Depository Service Program. Government of Canada Publications. Retrieved March 5, 2011.
  13. ^ According to information provided to attendees of the 12th Annual Information Technology Security Symposium, June 2000.
  14. ^ "Lux Ex Umbra: June 2008".
  15. ^ "Scott Jones, Head-designate, Canadian Centre for Cyber Security and Deputy Chief, IT Security, CSE". Communications Security Establishment (Press release). 2018-06-12. Archived from the original on 2018-06-28. Retrieved 2018-10-04. The Cyber Centre will be a single unified source of expert advice, guidance, services and support on cyber security for government, critical infrastructure owners and operations, the private sector and the Canadian public.
  16. ^ "Canadian Centre for Cyber Security: backgrounder-fiche-information". Communications Security Establishment. 2018-06-12. Archived from the original on 2018-10-04. Retrieved 2018-10-04. As a key initiative of the 2018 National Cyber Security Strategy the cyber security functions from three departments will be united to establish the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security (the Cyber Centre) as one unique, innovative, and forward-looking organization, as part of the Communications Security Establishment (CSE).
  17. ^ CSEC : Parliamentary Accountability Archived 2007-11-29 at the Wayback Machine
  18. ^ OCSEC Mandate Archived 2010-03-24 at the Wayback Machine
  19. ^ "News Release - New Commissioner of the Communications Security Establishment Canada Appointed". 2013-10-09. Retrieved 2013-10-25.
  20. ^ Canada, Public Safety (2017-11-22). "Enhancing Accountability and Transparency". aem. Retrieved 2019-07-27.
  21. ^ Commissioner, Office of the Intelligence (2019-07-17). "Office of the Intelligence Commissioner". aem. Retrieved 2019-07-27.
  22. ^ Tunney, Catharine (July 18, 2019). "Canada gets its first-ever intelligence commissioner". CBC News. Retrieved July 26, 2019.
  23. ^ "Inside Canada's top-secret billion-dollar spy palace | CBC News".
  24. ^ Defence Industry Daily, DID » Logistics & Support » Bases & Infrastructure » Canada's CSE SIGINT Agency Building New Facilities, 10 jun 2009
  25. ^ Issue 15 - Evidence Proceedings of the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence April 30, 2007
  26. ^ Rudner, Martin. (2007). "Canada's Communications Security Establishment, Signals Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism". Intelligence and National Security: 22(4) pp. 473–490
  27. ^ Morris, Nomi (1996). "Inside Canada's most secret agency." Maclean's: 109(36) pp. 32–35
  28. ^ Desbarats, Peter. "Somalia cover-up: A commissioner's journal", 1997
  29. ^ Archived 2008-03-06 at the Wayback Machine
  30. ^ "I warned RCMP days before Air India disaster: Bartleman". CBC News. May 3, 2007.
  31. ^ Archived 2013-06-16 at the Wayback Machine
  32. ^ "Inside Canada's top-secret billion-dollar spy palace". CBC News. October 8, 2013.
  33. ^ "CSEC used airport Wi-Fi to track Canadian travellers: Edward Snowden documents". CBC News. January 30, 2014.