SPIES! Mark Bourrie on CSEC’s new digs, the history of intelligence gathering, and the modern spy fetish

This article first appeared in the Summer 2014 edition of Ottawa Magazine.

By Mark Bourrie 

People shopping at the strip mall at Blair and Ogilvie roads often wonder what’s going to be inside the big white building that has risen in the woods just across the road. It’s the size of a domed stadium. Could it be a zoo? Another museum? Will it be a new national library full of books and art?

No — but the correct answer nevertheless gives a thrill to children and adults alike. The building will be full of spies. Fairly soon, the neighbouring East Side Mario’s and Starbucks should be the scene of a lot of sotto voce conversations about things most of us would never understand. Because the spies at Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) aren’t James Bond types ham-fistedly whacking bad guys; no, they’re the nerd army, some of Canada’s brightest minds hired because they’re brilliant at math and skilled at keeping secrets. They intercept phone calls, radio signals, and internet traffic to track down terrorists and foreign spies. They also break codes — and to do that in the 21st century, you need to be a computer genius or a math prodigy. CSEC works hard to recruit the best of the brightest of the country’s geeks, who are being rewarded with a brand spanking new building of epic proportions.

Illustration by Fred Sebastian
Illustration by Fred Sebastian

With the new CSEC headquarters, that corner of Ottawa is set to become the country’s ground zero of domestic and foreign spying, not to mention the focal point of the fantasy life of hundreds of paranoiacs. The move — CSEC is relocating from an old CBC headquarters at Bronson and Heron to a sparkling new palace — shows just how much Stephen Harper’s government values its spies. (more…)