A rare glimpse into Canada's eavesdropping agency

According to geek-laden lore, Canada's top-secret eavesdropping agency was once staffed by such a crew of oddball science nerds that one intelligence analyst cut her hair at her desk.

Speech by senior member of Communications Security Establishment

One-quarter of CSEC's analysts have an advanced degree -- half in technical subjects, especially computer science, software engineering or digital cartography. (iStock)

According to geek-laden lore, Canada's top-secret eavesdropping agency was once staffed by such a crew of oddball science nerds that one intelligence analyst cut her hair at her desk.

Another built a chicken-wire enclosure around his work area to keep other people away.

And there was a popular joke among the codebreakers and computer wizards of Communications Security Establishment Canada. How do you tell an extrovert at CSEC? He's the one looking at the tops of other people's shoes, not his own.

The more than 2,000 staffers of the electronic spy service headquartered in Ottawa's south end are generally forbidden from discussing their highly sensitive pursuit of foreign intelligence.

The agency barely even commented amid the frenzy of public concern about leaks from one of its key allies — the U.S. National Security Agency — that revealed NSA access to a huge volume of phone calls and emails, raising basic questions about privacy.

But one of CSEC's senior members opened the blinds a crack in an unpublicized speech a few years ago — providing a rare glimpse of the modern intelligence analyst at the shadowy agency.

The Canadian Press obtained a copy of the candid address under the Access to Information Act.

Though the May 2010 speech by CSEC Signals Intelligence Chief Shelly Bruce was delivered to a quasi-public audience of intelligence officials and educators, the Defence Department, CSEC's parent department, fought to keep portions of it secret. Only a complaint to Canada's information ombudsman dislodged the complete text.

Bruce joined CSEC in 1989 after studying in France, Russia and Canada, graduating from the University of Toronto with a master's degree in Slavic language and literature. During almost two decades with the spy agency, she worked in intelligence collection and analysis, strategic planning and information-technology security.

Following a stint in the Privy Council Office, she returned to CSEC in June 2009 to head up the "sigint" — or signals intelligence-gathering — program.

The CSEC monitors foreign communications — from email messages and phone calls to faxes and satellite transmissions — for intelligence of interest to Canada.

'Good at everything'

The contemporary sigint analyst is neither narrow specialist nor generalist, Bruce told her audience at a downtown Ottawa hotel.

"He or she must be good at everything, a Renaissance man or woman. It's not enough that you know a rare language. You have to be a brilliant speaker, a competent Java coder, a master of social media, a social psychologist, a political scientist, a tactician, a statistician, a geospatial expert, and an expert navigator of the bureaucracy," she said.

"To be good at all of this you have to be smart, smart, smart."

One-quarter of CSEC's analysts have an advanced degree. Whereas they used to come from political science, history, languages and other arts, half have degrees in technical subjects, especially computer science, software engineering or digital cartography.

Spying is no longer a man's world. Most of the agency's intelligence analysts are women, Bruce said. Many of its managers and the majority of its most senior executives are female.

According to Bruce, it's a far cry from the Cold War-era image of pipe-smoking men sifting through reams of intelligence intercepts.

Analysts from all over

An analyst routinely begins the day at 7:30 a.m., perhaps spending a few hours reviewing data compiled for her overnight by software that she partially wrote herself.

"She has constructed a hypothesis about how her targets may be using certain communications technologies to further their cause," said Bruce. "Unfortunately, the data will take a lot of tweaking before it's ready to reject the hypothesis."

Good analysts don't come from a particular school or program, she said.

"Yes, we have political scientists and historians, but we also have doctorates in comparative literature, many librarians, lots of computer scientists, physicists, musicians, philosophers and, as God is my witness, someone with a three-year degree in the Japanese Tea Ceremony.

"We don't have anybody who specialized in intelligence per se. Almost none of these people are working predominantly in the field of their education, especially the Tea Ceremony guy."

CSEC also likes recruits who have travelled, especially off the beaten tourist path to places like Algiers or Beijing. "This makes them harder to clear, but it's worth it."

Good analysts love technology, Bruce noted. "They play with it, they disassemble it, they use it to create whatever it is they like to create. We hate that they take away our iPods at the front door."

Successful analysts are also intensely curious and prone to detours. "Their college transcripts, or their extra-curricular study, are littered with strange diversions and investigations outside the prescribed route."

Many CSEC employees know more than one language — and the agency seeks out those who speak uncommon ones.

"Our experience is that training people from scratch to learn difficult languages just doesn't pay off, and it doesn't impart the cultural instincts that are so valuable," Bruce said.

And today's CSEC intelligence analysts are social creatures.

"The stereotype of the SIGINTer as an introvert incapable of looking you in the eye was never altogether inaccurate, but increasingly we have a cadre of well-spoken, well-rounded and outgoing young people," Bruce said.

"They overcome their introversion because the subject matter so enthralls them that they have to share it."