Review of polygraph tests stokes privacy fears at cyber spy agency

The watchdog body overseeing Canada's intelligence agencies is looking into whether polygraph tests should be used to hire spies — but its investigation has some of Canada's cyber spies worried that their most personal information could be viewed by strangers.

NSIRA is looking into whether lie detector tests are 'lawful, reasonable and necessary'

The federal government requires those needing high-level security clearances to undergo a polygraph test. (Standret/Shutterstock)

The watchdog body overseeing Canada's intelligence agencies is looking into whether polygraph tests — popularly known as lie detector tests — should be used to hire spies.

Its investigation has some of Canada's cyber intelligence officials worried that their most personal information could be viewed by strangers.

The National Security and Intelligence Review Agency [NSIRA] is in the midst of reviewing internal security programs at the Communication Security Establishment [CSE], the foreign signals intelligence agency. Among other things, NSIRA is looking into whether the use of polygraph tests in CSE recruitment "is lawful, reasonable and necessary."

NSIRA investigators say that, as part of this review, they need to review a sample of recorded polygraph interviews taken by current CSE employees and applicants.

That's causing some alarm at CSE HQ in Ottawa.

"Employees expose very personal information during the polygraph examination which is designed to assess factors such as loyalty and reliability," said CSE spokesperson Evan Koronewski.

"The examination of the audiovisual recordings of polygraph interviews has raised concerns from both CSE management and CSE employees."

Polygraph tests supposedly track physiological factors such as blood pressure and pulse rate to determine whether a person is lying. But the accuracy of polygraph tests has been questioned over the years.

Decades ago, NSIRA's predecessor, the Security Intelligence Review Committee, said it had "grave doubts" about the test's accuracy. The Supreme Court of Canada has rejected the use of polygraph results as evidence in court.

All government employees applying for enhanced top secret clearance have to undergo the test. Most employees at CSE and at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the domestic spy agency, are required to have that clearance as a condition of their work.

The headquarters of the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) in Ottawa. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

In a letter to CSE staff made public this week, NSIRA vowed the review will be limited and personal information will be protected.

NSIRA said in the letter that the interview recordings will be selected based on "generic file identifiers," not names or other personally identifiable information.

CSE says it's worried about employees' 'dignity'

In a statement issued to CBC News, NSIRA said experts and operators, including CSE's polygraph unit, "have confirmed that a comprehensive review of security screening practices at CSE, including the use of the polygraph, is not possible without access to security screening files."

CSE said NSIRA has accepted some, but not all, of its recommendations to keep the identifies of interview subjects private.

"We welcome this review and our only preoccupation is the privacy of our employees. We will continue to work with NSIRA to ensure the privacy, personal information and dignity of CSE employees is protected throughout the review process," said Koronewski.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada, the union representing some 2,400 CSE employees, said it is also worried.

"We have serious concerns about how the privacy of our members will be protected by NSIRA and have worked with CSE management to develop mitigation strategies," said Alex Silas, regional executive vice-president for PSAC in the National Capital Region.

"While we support NSIRA's independent review role, we believe that Parliament should consider stronger measures to protect the privacy rights of our members at CSE."

Privacy commissioner investigating 

A spokesperson for the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada said it has received "several complaints" about NSIRA staff watching the polygraph recordings and is investigating.

When asked what steps have been taken to blur employees' identities, NSIRA said its methodology will be made public once the report is finished.

Cameron Ortis leaves the courthouse in Ottawa after being granted bail on Oct. 22, 2019. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The tension between CSE and its watchdog over polygraph recordings comes as government departments tighten their internal security screening programs in response to the case of Cameron Ortis.

The RCMP intelligence official is accused of sharing confidential information and preparing to leak more.

In the immediate aftermath of his arrest in the fall of 2019, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki said Ortis had a valid top secret clearance — which must be renewed every five years — but had not undergone a polygraph exam.

Ortis's trial is set to get underway in the fall of 2023.


Catharine Tunney is a reporter with CBC's Parliament Hill bureau, where she covers national security and the RCMP. She worked previously for CBC in Nova Scotia. You can reach her at catharine.tunney@cbc.ca

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