Are we all feeling secure?
That was the question posed by former Communications Security Establishment (CSE) Officer Mike Frost at a conference held last month in Mississauga, Ont. by Xplor International, an association representing the document systems industry. Answering his own question, Frost shocked the room by saying that no security measures exist that cannot be broken, including those used in enterprise environments.
The 63-year-old ex-CSE officer and author of the best-selling tell-all book “Spyworld: Inside the Canadian and American Intelligence Establishments”, warned that anyone who has ever used a telephone, cell phone, sent an e-mail or even used a baby monitor has definitely had their communications intercepted.
Since his retirement in 1991, Frost said that there has been an unprecedented proliferation of wireless communications. He added that with fibre-optic and wireless technologies, it is much easier to intercept information. Having spent the majority of his 34 years with the CSE involved in tracking and listening to communications in both the private and public sectors, Frost said that, in terms of security, there is no system that cannot be broken, even within the stringent security systems of the enterprise.
“No system is unbreakable given sufficient depth,” Frost told listeners. “If you can, buy the best (in security). Spend the money if possible. For sensitive information, you must.”
Frost added that technologies do exist that, though not 100 per cent secure, are much tougher and more time-consuming to break. For example, in terms of voice recognition, he said the practice of statistical multiplexing is very difficult to break down and decode.
After admitting that he was asked to, and in fact spied on, Margaret Trudeau, former wife of then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Frost stressed his earlier warning.
“If the wife of the Prime Minister is not secure, how secure do you think you are?”
Frost once again left the audience dumbfounded when he described a database that is held at the CSE indefinitely – one that is not subject to privacy audit. Within this database is detailed information on approximately one out of every four Canadians.
“They have all your personal information,” Frost said. “They have your name, social insurance number, sex, telephone number, age, medical and dental records, assets, credit cards, credit rating, credit records, sexual preference, friends names, hobbies, criminal records and even the state of your health. Big Brother can find out all about you. You have your very identity to lose.”
Frost said the information is kept for national security purposes, and added that there is no way to access the database to check for accuracy.
He noted that the U.S.-based NSA (National Security Agency) and the CSE are not household names, something Frost said is done by design. He said that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) in Canada and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the U.S. tend to take the blame for operations that are conducted by these two covert organizations. These bodies are just two out of five that make up ECHELON, he said, the other three being organizations in the United Kingdom, and although they have not admitted to being a part, New Zealand and Australia. According to Frost, who acted as deputy director of ECHELON covert operations, the organization listens to everything that is radiated electronically worldwide.
“Number one on the ECHELON list is terrorists and terrorist activity,” he said. “They search communications for keywords and also use voice recognition and topic recognition in the case of coded conversations.”
The average person would be hard pressed not to ask the inevitable question, then, that if these “secret” organizations exist and tap into communications ranging from high-level government bodies to the private citizen, how was the U.S. susceptible to such a brutal attack last month?
“Good question,” said Frost. “The bad guys fell through the cracks. There was a massive failure in the intelligence community. What happened? The bad guys got lucky and the intelligence collapsed at the same time. There were indications. Something needs to be done to recognize these indications.”