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Spies that Share

Docs show CSIS collaboration with private sector

by Tim Groves

ILLUSTRATION: Nadine Wiepning.
ILLUSTRATION: Nadine Wiepning.

TORONTO—The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) is disclosing intelligence to private companies despite a law that does not permit this sharing.

There is a “new imperative” for the Service to work closely with industry partners, according to the 2010 “Review of CSIS’s Private Sector Relationships,” created by the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), the body that oversees the spy agency’s compliance with the law.

The Review, released through freedom-of-information legislation, explains that the CSIS Act "expressly does not permit the sharing of intelligence with the private sector." However, it condones the sharing that is taking place, emphasizing that the Act was "developed in a different era with a different threat environment" and that the Act is "appropriately restrictive and … strict parameters" for intelligence sharing are in place.

The Review details the liaison programs that exist between CSIS and a variety of groups, including private industry partners that maintain critical infrastructure, private security firms, and security firms responsible for shopping malls. 

According to the Review, the CSIS Act “limits the agency’s ‘duties and functions’ to reporting and advising the Government of Canada,” noting the Act “does not contemplate disclosure” to private sector groups.

When it comes to Canada’s spy agency handing information to the private sector, the CSIS Act is ambiguous, according to Ron Atkey, who chaired the Security Intelligence Review Committee in the 1980’s. “One would like to think that CSIS could [legally] operate with the private sector,” Atkey told The Dominion. However, he acknowledges that there are serious questions related to this.

Atkey calls the lack of legal clarity a festering sore. He is encouraged by the fact that a review of the issues was carried out but doesn’t think that changes in legislation will be made until an accident takes place. What kind of accident is he thinking of? “Information that is vital to Canadian security, being shared inadvertently with an entity that turns out to be hostile to Canada's interest. Then all hell breaks loose when that becomes public, and you have focus on it.”

These issues are best addressed when they become public, says Atkey. "Don’t go looking for major issues when they are not at this point major,” he said. “In other words, let sleeping dogs lie."

Abby Deshman, a lawyer with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, disagrees. “So much of this activity is undertaken in secret, many of the problems that happen may never become public, so SIRC, I think, has an additional responsibility to ask proactive questions, to be seeking out potential problems before they happen.”

“The legislative prohibition on sharing much of this information is being skirted around,” says Deshman. “If the oversight agency is approving actions that contravene the law, I think that is a major problem.”

Although the heavily redacted Review is sparse on details of CSIS’s collaboration with the private sector, The Dominion has revealed a series of classified intelligence briefings for major energy companies that were held at CSIS headquarters. Although organized by the Department of Natural Resources, CSIS and the RCMP collaborated on the day-long events.

New documents show a briefing held in November 2011 covered “challenges to energy projects from environmental groups,” and a May 2012 briefing included a panel discussion on the Northern Gateway Pipeline and projects related to the tar sands. Previous briefings have dealt with subjects such as Indigenous unrest and the G20 summit.

Deshman believes working through other agencies is one of the legal means available to CSIS for sharing intelligence but noted it is unclear what is being shared.

“The real concern here is that we don't know what is being said, why it is being said, and for what uses,” says Deshman. “I think you really have to ask some serious questions about whose interests are being served and for what purpose.”

Tim Groves is an investigative researcher and journalist based in Toronto. He can be reached at timgrovesreports [at] and tweets@timymit. For more information on his work, visit

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