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CSE and Project LEVITATION: Is Big Data a Deterrent to Terrorism?

CBC News recently unveiled news of Project LEVITATION, an intelligence initiative that allowed analysts at the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) to access information regarding 10 to 15 million uploads and downloads on free file-sharing websites each day. This strategy of bulk data collection led to the discovery of an uploaded document that outlined the hostage strategy of AQIM, the North African branch of al-Qaeda. These revelations were disclosed in a document from 2012, obtained by American whistleblower Edward Snowden, and recently made public by American journalist Glenn Greenwald in collaboration with The Intercept and CBC.

The document states that Canada has access to data from 102 free file upload sites, including Sendspace, Rapidshare and the now-obsolete Megaupload.  Among total collected web traffic, there are only 350 “interesting download events” each month, less than 0.0001 % of the total. When a suspicious file is uncovered, specialists input the metadata into databases in order to uncover the identity and online habits of the users of these suspicious files within just hours.

With the recent appointment of the former chief of CSE, John Forster, as deputy defense minister, and the unveiling of a grand $1.2 B headquarters for CSE in Ottawa, the secretive organization is gaining a higher profile in the public eye.

CSE asserts that targeting Canadian citizens’ communications should be avoided but the electronic communication of foreigners abroad remains a fair target. In a formal statement, CSE claims that it “does not direct its activities at Canadians or anyone in Canada, and, in accordance with our legislation, has a range of measures in place to protect the privacy of Canadians incidentally encountered in the course of these foreign intelligence operations.” In some cases, the defense minister authorizes CSE activities that would otherwise breach the Criminal Code rule against intercepting the private communications of Canadians. To address concerns about oversight, the CSE Commissioner’s Office independently conducts reviews, issues recommendations, and submits an annual report to Parliament.

According to Nicholas Weaver, a computer scientist from the University of California at Berkeley, “global surveillance represents a danger to democracy, but if you are going to build it, LEVITATION is a good example of how to use it well.” However, there have been doubts regarding the efficiency of the mass trawling of Internet data, with experts citing the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and the recent attacks in Paris as examples in which information had been gathered on the suspects beforehand yet the attacks were not prevented.cyber security - cover image

For more insight on how big data analytics might inform national defense policy, one should look to Singapore, a country which uses ‘big data’ analytic techniques in service of national defense. Singapore employs a concept called Total Information Awareness (TIA) to detect the warning signs of terrorism. The system gathers electronic records such as emails, phone logs, Internet searches, credit card transactions, airline reservations, and looks for signs of ‘would-be’ terrorism. Today, scenario-based planning and big-data analysis is used in Singapore for everything from planning procurement cycles to cutting ambulance response times and making economic forecasts.  In 2009, Singapore established the ‘Strategic Futures Network’, which uses future planning to address domestic social and economic issues, including black swan events that threaten national security.

Currently, Singapore has one of the lowest crime rates in the world, remaining relatively free from credible terrorist threats. However, its privacy laws are practically non-existent, with the government having the legal authority to monitor all electronic communications, including phone calls. With today’s rapid advances in information technology, it is only a matter of time before big data analytics and national defense policy become increasingly intertwined in Canada.

According to Sir Stuart Peach, UK Vice Chief of Staff, “Big Data holds great potential for the Defence and Security sector but [the Ministry of Defense] must not fall into the trap of procuring only bespoke software solutions if it is to exploit the technology in a timely manner.” The intelligence sector currently collects more data than it has the capability to analyze, with as much of 95 percent of raw data never being viewed by analysts. The big data approach may offer a faster turnover from data collection to analysis and action with greater confidence in the reliability of the predicted outcomes. In the future, competence in big data analytics will become a fundamental requirement for military forces.

Jenny Yang
Jenny Yang graduated with an MPhil from the University of Cambridge, and a BAH in Political Studies from Queen's University. Her research interests include security tensions in the Asia-Pacific; peacekeeping and multilateralism; and the Women, Peace, and Security agenda. She currently works at Interpol's headquarters in Lyon France in the Strategic Planning Directorate. She was invited by the Atlantic Council of Bosnia and Herzegovina to attend the 2014 NATO Summer School in the Balkans and has also studied at the Ecole Normale Superieure de Lyon on the Ontario Rhone-Alpes Scholarship. She has worked as an advisor at an internship for the Embassy of Canada to the Netherlands, in which she provided support to the Canadian Permanent Representation for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).