Foreign Intelligence

CSE is the Government of Canada’s foreign signals intelligence agency, providing an information advantage to key decision-makers in the government.

We collect foreign intelligence to inform and alert the government to the activities, motivations, capabilities and intentions of foreign entities who seek to undermine our national prosperity and security. Our foreign intelligence responds to the government’s intelligence priorities, which are set by Cabinet.

We provide information about foreign-based cyber threats, espionage, terrorism, and kidnappings of Canadians abroad, among other serious threats. This information helps inform Government of Canada actions and decisions to combat these threats.

Our foreign intelligence also supports government decision-making and policy making in international affairs, defence and security. It provides important insights into global events and crises, and supports Canada’s national interests in an increasingly complex and competitive world.

How do we do it?

CSE acquires foreign intelligence through its signals intelligence capabilities. Signals intelligence (or SIGINT) is the interception, decoding or decryption, and analysis of communications and other electronic signals. The practice of intercepting electronic signals began in the early 1900s when transmissions from radios and telegraphs were captured, decoded, and used to inform military strategy. Today, the world of signals intelligence includes any form of electronic communications, such as telephone calls and text messages, computer and internet communications, satellite signals, and more.

CSE uses a broad range of advanced capabilities to acquire foreign intelligence from foreign targets outside of Canada. Under the CSE Act, we can also interact with foreign targets operating on computer-based networks and systems.

Foreign intelligence provided by CSE is often combined with other information—classified and unclassified—to help provide a comprehensive view and unique insight into the potential threats and issues Canada faces.

The Benefits of Foreign Intelligence

All governments are responsible for the safety and well-being of their people, their country’s infrastructure, and their national interests. CSE’s foreign intelligence mission supports the Canadian government’s national and economic security priorities.

For example, CSE’s foreign intelligence has played a vital role in:

  • Providing early warning to thwart foreign cyber threats to Government of Canada and critical information infrastructure and networks.
  • Supporting Canadian military operations and protecting our forces against threats.
  • Uncovering foreign-based extremists’ efforts to attract, radicalize, and train individuals to carry out attacks in Canada and abroad.
  • Identifying and helping to defend the country against the actions of hostile foreign intelligence agencies.
  • Furthering Canada’s national interests in the world by providing insights related to Canada’s strategic interests, global events and crises to help inform the Government’s foreign policy.

Foreign Intelligence and Privacy Measures

CSE is prohibited by law from targeting Canadians or anyone in Canada.

Our operations target the activities of foreign individuals, states, organizations or terrorist groups that have implications for Canada’s international affairs, defence or security. CSE does not have the mandate or authority to target the private communications of Canadians or anyone in Canada. We don’t ask our allies to do anything on our behalf that is not legal for us to do.

However, in the course of targeting foreign entities outside Canada in an interconnected and highly networked world, it is possible that we may incidentally intercept the communications of a Canadian. For example, a foreign terrorist target overseas may turn out to be communicating with someone in Canada. The CSE Act acknowledges that this may happen and requires the Minister of National Defence to authorize foreign intelligence collection activities that could risk this interception because it contravenes an act of Parliament (i.e. the Criminal Code). Before a Foreign Intelligence Authorization can come into effect, it must be approved by the Intelligence Commissioner, a retired superior court judge.

If, in conducting authorized foreign intelligence collection activities, a Canadian’s communication is incidentally intercepted, CSE must and does take steps to protect the privacy of that Canadian. In fact, privacy is baked into all aspects of our foreign intelligence. Our systems, our policies, our processes, our training and certification program for analysts are all designed to protect Canadian privacy.

Like all of CSE’s activities, our foreign intelligence operations are subject to review by the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency and the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians.

To learn more about these how CSE is held accountable, visit the Accountability and Privacy page.