Failure to communicate: Federal data centre gets top-secret surprise

Shared Services Canada had been talking with the military for two years about taking over a data centre at CFB Borden. But someone forgot to mention a top-secret listening post inside the building that the Canadian Forces insists on keeping.

Plan to build $400M data centre at military base disrupted by unexpected demand for highly secure room

Shared Services Canada plans to consolidate almost 500 data centres into just seven facilities, but its flagship centre at CFB Borden hit a snag. (Shared Services Canada)

A federal project to build a flagship data centre at a Canadian Forces base has been dealt a blow after civilian planners suddenly realized there was a top-secret military communications post getting in the way.

Shared Services Canada, the beleaguered federal information technology agency, scrambled to come up with Plan B after military officials mentioned the new data centre would have to be built around a so-called COMCEN post at Canadian Forces Base Borden, Ont.

Shared Services Canada had been talking with the military about the $400-million data-centre project since at least 2013, but only last fall did the agency wake up to the roadblock presented by the top-secret unit.

Auditor General Michael Ferguson was highly critical of Shared Services Canada last month in a report that faulted its planning, customer service and purported savings. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)
The Canadian Forces already run a data centre at CFB Borden, with the communications post tucked inside. But defence officials had agreed to hand over the facility for a massive upgrade — as long as military brass remained in full control of its top-secret operation, situated inside a secure room.

That caveat never registered with Shared Services Canada, which hadn't advised private-sector bidders of the additional work-around or the need for their employees to have top-secret clearance to even enter the facility.

Shared Services Canada's "purpose-built and lights-out data centre strategy does not include Top Secret communications centres and therefore precludes any requirements for the COMCEN," says a briefing note for the president of the agency.

Cited in memo

"Very recently both (the Defence Department) and SSC came to the realization that neither party was addressing the accommodations for the COMCEN."

CBC News obtained the September 2015 document, with sections blacked out as confidential advice, under the Access to Information Act.

As with any large infrastructure project, issues will arise.- Shared Services Canada spokeswoman

The agency signed a memorandum of understanding with the military in November 2013, with a clause that the Defence Department says preserved its rights to operate the COMCEN, though the communications post is not specifically named. The internal document was also obtained by CBC News.

"Despite extensive SSC-DND consultations throughout the EDC Borden Expansion project's planning phase, DND had assumed until recently that SSC will continue to provide a secure room for the COMCEN," says the briefing note.

That failure of communication by the federal government's vaunted communications agency created huge headaches.

The military warned the Canadian Forces were unlikely to have the money, time or permission to move the top secret post out of the newly upgraded data centre.

And Shared Services Canada said that designing and building a new secure facility inside significantly alters the project — including the unexpected requirement of high-level security clearance for private-sector workers.

Shared Services Canada declines to say what solutions have been found for the centre, whose first phase is supposed to be in place by September 2017.

"Due to security issues surrounding COMCEN, no further details can be provided as to the steps that have been taken to resolve the issue," spokeswoman Andrée Gregoire said in an email.

Still on track?

"As with any large infrastructure project, issues will arise.… The project is on track and on schedule … (and) remains within budget."

Three companies have qualified to bid on the data centre work, which includes design, construction and service for 25 years. Shared Services Canada had previously estimated the total cost at about $400 million, but Gregoire would not confirm the number, citing the "final stages of negotiations" currently underway.

An announcement of the winner was expected this month but now has been delayed until at least April.

Shared Services Canada has already established a data centre in Barrie, Ont. (YouTube.com)
Gregoire would not say whether new security requirements have been added to the tender, which was issued last year with only mid-level security prerequisites. "The COMCEN requirements have been fully taken into account," she said.

The Borden blunder is the latest fumble at Shared Services Canada, which was excoriated by the auditor general of Canada last month for poor planning, weak communication and lacklustre performance.

The agency, with 6,100 employees and annual budget of $1.4 billion, was created in 2011 to consolidate IT across 43 departments, including creating a single government email system, drastically reducing telephone land lines in favour of cellular and voice-over-internet protocol services, and consolidating 485 data centres into just seven by 2020.

The auditor general slammed the agency's customer service and performance, noting that only 3,000 of 500,000 email-boxes had migrated by the project's March 2015 deadline.

Michael Ferguson also said the agency was claiming significant savings through consolidation — but only by ignoring key costs.

Follow @DeanBeeby on Twitter


Dean Beeby

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Bureau

Dean Beeby is a CBC journalist, author and specialist in freedom-of-information laws. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanBeeby


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?