Inside Canadian Intelligence

Edited by Dwight Hamilton, Inside Canadian Intelligence: Exposing the New Realities of Espionage and International Terrorism is an interesting read, though I would say that there are some important counterarguments to the main ideological positions adopted by the various authors.

The book describes Canada’s various present and historical intelligence services, including the intelligence branch of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS), the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), military intelligence, and others. There are chapters on counterintelligence, on the Air India attack and subsequent investigations, on special forces (including JTF-2), and on various other topics connected to matters of Canadian security and intelligence. For those wanting to get a better understanding of the history and present operations of these organizations, it is probably a worthwhile read. There is also some interesting information on technical capabilities and techniques, such as some information on the RADAR and infrared data fed into NORAD, how internal government security screenings are conducted, automated facial recognition, how some information from human sources is validated, and voice recognition in mass surveillance of telecommunication.

Most books written by people closely linked to intelligence organizations have a tendency to represent the officers of those organizations as heroes who can do no wrong, opposed by inhuman monsters, and hampered by meddling politicians and judges (for example). What this ignores is the dangers posed to the general public by intelligence services themselves, as well as the willingness they sometimes demonstrate to protect their own interests at the expense of the general public. Oversight may occasionally prevent good things from being done, but it surely prevents abuses as well.

Another assumption I question is that it is appropriate to categorize counterterrorism efforts as a ‘war’. First, I don’t think that is accurate. Terrorism is a tactic, not an entity that can be defeated. Secondly, I think it causes problems when we describe the fight against terrorism as a war. It justifies a lack of oversight, and can be used to justify human rights violations. It also creates the misleading impression that the ‘War on Terror’ could end. In reality, as long as there are people willing to use violence for political purposes, there will be terrorism. It can no more be ended than tax evasion or petty crime.

Above all, what this book lacks is a sense of perspective. Terrorism really isn’t such a huge problem. It kills far fewer people than chronic or infectious diseases, war, or accidents. It’s a mistake to turn our society upside down or spend an excessive amount of money trying to stop people from using certain violent tactics. We need to remain aware of the importance of other priorities, as well as the ways in which ‘being at war’ corrodes the integrity of democratic states. One example of such corrosion is the dangerous tendency of states to spy on everybody, in hopes of catching the few people who may be up to no good. Because it is so powerful, and has so many abilities to hide its mistakes and abuses, the state is far more dangerous than any terrorist cell, and it is critical to human freedom that the power of states be kept in check.

By all means, we should be grateful for the good work done by the security services, but we must also recognize the danger that they will go too far and become violators of rights, as well as the much greater importance of other governmental undertakings. Dealing with cancer and providing a better education for children are far more important to the welfare of Canadians than stopping terrorist attacks. It’s a shame that we are continuing to spend billions on the latter, while government is cutting back on virtually everything else.

Stratfor hacked

A few times before, I have mentioned the website Stratfor. They normally provide a very ‘realist‘ take on global politics. They have interesting sources of information and arguments, and I have found them to be worth reading.

Unfortunately, their entire database of past and present subscribers has been stolen by hackers and released online. If you have ever given them your credit card number, you should probably contact your credit card company immediately to cancel it and have a new card issued with an updated number.

It’s probably a good idea to change your credit card number every few years, regardless. The people at MasterCard said that website hacks like this happen all the time. So often, in fact, that they didn’t want to hear any details about it at all. There are probably a lot of websites that would not notify their users in the event of a breach like the one Stratfor has suffered.

As a side note, this hack demonstrates a couple of things about security. First, the more you hold yourself up as being an expert about security, the more alluring a target you risk making yourself for hackers driven by prestige. This is why the websites of people like the CIA are targeted so often (though such hacks probably aren’t indicative of significant security breaches). Second, there are reputational risks associated with having lax security, especially if you represent yourself as a security expert. I have no doubt that Stratfor’s business will suffer at least a bit because of this.

Space tourism is pointless and damaging

Henry Shue has written convincingly about the moral importance of the rich giving up luxuries for the sake of fighting climate change, before the poor are asked to give up necessities. As he explains it, even in an emergency you sell the jewelry before you sell the blankets.

The ultimate example of luxury emissions is probably private spaceflight, as described in Nature recently. All that fuel gets burned so that a few really rich people can get to a high altitude and gawk for a while before returning to Earth.

Surely, our climate policies should curb such behaviours.