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I’ve been in the foreign intelligence game for the better part of thirty years. It’s interesting to see how it has evolved from the Cold War, a renewed great power struggle, cyber-espionage, dis-information, foreign influence, interference, privateering and proxies, to the recent Russian war on Ukraine. It has been militarized and commercialised.

Foreign and Military Intelligence (FI/MI) from Commercial Source Intelligence (CSINT) has proved invaluable in the Russian War against Ukraine. Whether that was from multi-spectral satellite imagery, real time space-based video, synthetic aperture radar, signals and electronic intelligence, cyber operations, social networks analysis to human sources on the ground. The private sector has been prolific in the near-real-time public release of synthesized all-source intelligence reports at both strategic and tactical levels.

The question as to whether Canada requires a foreign intelligence service has been debated for quite sometime.[1]It’s fascinating to foresee where it is going.

The role of Foreign and Military Intelligence has been to deliver accurate and timely foreknowledge to the capabilities, plans, designs and deceptions, of which our adversaries prefer to keep hidden. The nature of this information can relate to economic, technical capabilities, geopolitics, adversarial disposition, capabilities, tactics and intent.

There has always been a fine line between Military Intelligence (MI) which is collected globally and Foreign Intelligence (FI). There is also a significant private sector market for foreign intelligence. Multinational corporations operating abroad, require intelligence for global risk management, as do Non-Government Organizations (NGOs), human rights organizations, investigative journalists, academics, critical infrastructure owners, security firms and Private Military Contractors (PMC).

From a military perspective, anticipation, intelligence, fluidity and freedom-of-manoeuvre are attributes of military operations, but they rely on intentionality and attribution for precise targeting and or application of effective countermeasures. A principal finding is that attribution and targeting in cyber and cognitive domains is often lead by Commercial and Open Source Intelligence (CSINT/OSINT). These days, everyone and everything leaves a digital exhaust.[2]

Perhaps, the greatest challenge of our lifetime will be the war on truth - from cognitive warfare, foreign influence, interference and dis-mis-mal-information. Equally difficult problem is getting in front of the proxy wars between nation states who are directly targeting the private sector often over cyberspace. Industry is in the direct line of fire and well-positioned to collect threat intelligence at scale.[3]

One my senior intelligence analysts observed that “cognitive warfare was found to be niche in that it intrinsically makes itself vulnerable to OSINT above any other school of intelligence, in that it has to reach the public and therefore has to cross our sensors.”

What struck me, and others in the business, was that the large-volume and high-quality of foreign intelligence now produced by the private sector, particularly from ‘cyber-facilitated’ sources. We have seen the rise of commercial intelligence, which has been proven to be as accurate, relevant, timely and actionable as conventional intelligence but uniquely agile and cost effective. It can be delivered as a simple subscription service with a credit card. This has radically changed the calculus for a future Canadian government foreign intelligence service.[4]

The government has an important role in foreign intelligence collection, especially where highly-intrusive methods are required, but they no longer need to architect or own the full solution - nor is it the preferred option. Similarly, departments don’t need to build and staff full independent competing OSINT capabilities when there is already a mature market.

Commercial intelligence services do not compete with, but complement government agencies as a valuable source, more aligned to working in a world described by open data. Canadians would be well served by providing existing agencies enhanced power to pursue FI operations abroad against adversaries but also facilitate procurement of intelligence-as-a-services from industry. Similarly, the defence intelligence enterprise can leverage trusted Canadian sovereign industrial sources and capabilities to accelerate capacity building and renewal. [5]

In conclusion, foreign intelligence can help defend national interests in a globalized competitive environment.

Canada’s allies and adversaries have been quick to outsource intelligence production and operations. The key will be to leverage a sovereign industrial capacity.


Dave McMahon is the Chief Intelligence Officer of Sapper Labs – a veteran-owned Canadian Intelligence and Cyber Defence Company

[1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

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