The commander of the Royal Canadian Navy says he's been assured the secrets of the military's planned Arctic patrol ships have not fallen into the wrong hands, and the yard at the centre of the latest spy case is taking appropriate precautions with top-secret information.
The vote of confidence from Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, in an interview with The Canadian Press, comes as questions linger about precisely what data Canadian naval engineer Qing Quentin Huang, 53, of Waterdown, Ont., is alleged to have been offering to the government of China.
"I have the assurance, in this case from Irving, that the information they have provided, they are safeguarding in accordance with the rules and regulations of the Government of Canada," Norman said.
"Situations like this should legitimately cause us to reflect on processes and procedures."
But Norman said he's satisfied the contractors in question "are committed to protecting that information and the sensitivity of the information we're sharing with them."
Both Lloyd's Registry Canada, Huang's employer, and Irving Shipbuilding Inc., the prime contractor on the patrol ships, say the suspect had neither security clearance nor access to classified information.
Security services moved swiftly to arrest him over the weekend, apparently before any information was handed over.
It stands in contrast to the handling of the case of former sub-lieutenant Jeffery Delisle, the ex-navy intelligence officer, who sold a trove of secrets to the Russians.
He was under surveillance by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service for months before the RCMP was called in to build a criminal case. During that time, Delisle passed information to his handlers.
Much has been learned from the earlier spy scandal, Norman said.
"The results of the Delisle case were significant and widespread in terms of their impact on not only procedures and practices and rules and regulations, but in terms of what I would describe as a culture and behaviour related to security," he said. "There is a significantly heightened awareness. There is a significantly increased focus on security behaviour."
The Department of National Defence instituted a sweeping security review and new restrictions, including the locking down of highly sensitive work stations where intelligence from Canada's allies in the so-called "Five Eyes" community is available.
Defence experts have said the increasing use of independent contractors for design, construction and maintenance of highly complex military equipment poses a new, potential emerging security concern.
In the case of shipbuilding, many of the functions used to be performed in-house, but the absence of new programs over the last decade has meant much of the expertise has either been cut or lost.
Norman says Canada is not alone in its increased dependency on third-party, private-sector support.
"We're not alone, and it appears that not withstanding some of the challenges that arrangement presents, we seem to be making great progress in a number of areas," he said. "These strategic partnerships with industry are bearing significant fruit [in] new capabilities, progress and modernization of the Halifax-class [ships]."
A recent Conference Board of Canada briefing looked at so-called insider threats, how to spot them and take mitigating action. The 10-page analysis noted that labour mobility and technology have heightened the risks.
"Given Generation Y's tendency toward career mobility (which increases the incentive to leverage inside information to advance career paths) and reductions in organizational trust, the accessibility of social media only adds to a perfect storm of drivers for insider threat," said April 2013 review.
Ray Boisvert, a former assistant director of CSIS and the current president of intelligence consulting firm ISECIS, says it’s too soon to tell why the breach happened, but it should raise some issues about the supply line in military procurement.
“When we think about national security, it isn’t so much any more just about counter-terrorism and it’s not just about cyber defence. What we’re seeing is something towards old-style traditional approach to espionage. In this case, an insider working on behalf of a company,” he said in an interview with CBC’s Lang & O’Leary Exchange.
Boisvert said there is a lot the Chinese might want to learn in a Canadian shipyard.
“It would fit into those strategic pieces that the Chinese government and other governments around the world would be interested in filling in terms of intelligence gaps,” he said.
“So they’re looking at everything from fire systems on board the vessels to navigation systems and a number of other little elements. Engineering, design, some of the fundamentals of shipbuilding — Canada still is a significant leader in this particular industry so that insight would be of high value."