Former spy offers glimpse into electronic espionage

Big brother is listening and recording almost everything you say. Want to meet him?

A former highly ranked officer for the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), the Canadian equivalent of the National Security Agency (NSA) in the U.S., said if you think you’re being monitored you’re not paranoid, you’re right. Mike Frost said if you’ve used a phone, sent an e-mail or a fax, visited a chatroom, or have a baby monitor, these conversations have been listened to by someone or something.

“Baby monitors are great to listen to, trust me. They are a lot of fun,” said Frost.

“How do I know this? Well for 34 years that is how I earned my living: listening to communications such as those, analyzing them, and writing intelligence reports for the Canadian government.”

Frost was the keynote speaker at a Xplor Canada Central Chapter event in Mississauga on Thursday. Xplor is a not-for-profit organization representing more than 2,000 companies worldwide in the electronic document industry.

When Frost left the CSE in 1991, he was the deputy chief in charge of covert collection overseas and the Canadian representative on the NATO Advisory Committee for Special Intelligence. In 1994 he wrote a book, Spyworld: Inside the Canadian and American Intelligence Establishment, documenting his days as an intelligence officer.

Frost said the CSE is well funded, networked and equipped. He said it has about 1,000 employees and an annual budget of about $365 million (both larger than Canadian Security Intelligence Service), to say nothing if its membership in Echelon, an intelligence gathering group established by the NSA. Canada, the U.S., the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia are the only members, according to Frost, but only Australia has gone public about its involvement.

“Echelon is a system that listens to everything that is radiated electronically worldwide,” said Frost and added it has a budget of about $40 billion. “NSA has admitted that one of their Echelon super-computers is capable of processing 50 million messages an hour. I have no idea how many super-computers are in the echelon system, but they would be in the tens of thousands.”

The key to gleaning any useful information from the data is word recognition software. Frost said when he left the NSA system had accuracy rate of about 98 per cent and is sure they’ve perfected it since.

Echelon and CSE are interested in more than documenting domestic life through baby monitors. Frost said Echelon’s top priority is collecting information on terrorists and terrorist activity, followed by drug lord and drug lord activity and organized crime. Economic intelligence, however, has also become a priority since the end of the Cold War.

Frost said Echelon has covert collection sites in virtually every capital city in the world, but it isn’t the only player in the covert intelligence game. Frost said just about every embassy in Ottawa has antennas on its roofs aimed at a variety of targets–other embassies, the Prime Minister’s Office and the private sector.

Companies worried about sensitive information being captured can do little to fight back. Frost recommended buying the best encryption applications and ciphering products, but given enough time both can be overcome.

Given the resources, cutting edge technologies, budgets and network size, How can a plan to attack the World Trade Center and Pentagon go undetected? Bad luck, according to Frost. He called the lack of information “a massive failure of the intelligence community.” While he doesn’t know why it failed, he does have some ideas.

“First of all, the bad guys got really lucky. Everything just sort of collapsed: human intelligence collapsed, photo intelligence collapsed, signals intelligence collapsed. I do believe though there were indications there that were missed by the human element, people analyzing the information,” said Frost.

“I can appreciate the problems the facing the poor analyst that has to put something on paper concerning these things? What kind of credence do you put into it? Do you want to panic the powers that be and then be made to look like a fool?”

Frost surmised, however, someone may have known something. In May, he said, the perimeter around the WTC was enlarged by adding more concrete barricades, additional police officers were put in the lobbies, and extra cameras were mounted on the buildings.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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