Dave McMahon · Clairvoyance Cyber Corp. · Posted: June 15, 2021

Canada has worked under a shared model of foreign intelligence collection since the Second World War, heavily relied on allies for intelligence, while the global environment has become more complex and gaps in intelligence have widened to the point where Canada is strategically disadvantaged.


Changing demographics, resource competition, environment change, globalization, economics, governance, urbanization, competitive geopolitics, the unprecedented advancement in science and technology, are significant trends shaping the future security environment. These trends are developing rapidly along a converging timeline to create emergent effects, threats and competing opportunities. Never have the need for enhanced foreign intelligence been more critical and a sovereign Canadian capability more important.

Canada’s adversaries will continue to weaponize in cyberspace and seize vital high ground as part of grand strategies for AI supremacy and dominance of the Information Cognitive Domain[1]. The contest to control and influence the fabric of cyberspace will be as significant as the Manhattan project.

Canada’s post-Cold War enemies are hidden, and Canada’s diplomatic and military allies have remained economic competitors. On those grounds alone, Canada needs a Foreign Intelligence Service.”[2]

Pacing threats such as China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, compete with Canada in cyberspace and economically just below the level-of-armed-conflict.  China's road and belt initiative will shift the balance of economic, technological and military global power. The Thousands Talent Plan recruits leading international experts in scientific research, innovation, and entrepreneurship. United Front Work gathers intelligence on, and attempts to influence elite individuals and organizations inside Canada.  Meanwhile, a Three Warfares strategy of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) coordinates public opinion, psychological and legal warfare.[3]  China is shaping global infrastructure at an alarming speed: launching low orbit 5G satellites over Canada’s Arctic, conducting industrial espionage against our business and seeking to impose their a social credit system of surveillance onto Canadians through manipulation of telecommunication standards and applications.

Russia for their part, is a multi-domain threat that holds North America at risk, whether it be projecting power globally through informationized or hybrid warfare, compromising supply chains or propagating a fire-hose of falsehoods, misinformation and disinformation[4], which intend to erode, disrupt and degrade trust in the democratic system and undermine fundamental Canadian values and quality-of-life. 

Meanwhile, rogue states, such as Iran and North Korea, pound Canada in cyberspace, outside of any international norms of behaviour.

Economic security matters to Canadians. Foreign state-sponsored industrial espionage is serious. CSIS in their 2021 annual report recognizes that espionage and inference is a primary threat to Canadians. Similarly, the FBI reports two–thousand open cases involving just Chinese espionage and interference with a new case every ten hours. Nearly every Canadian will be affected by foreign source cyber attacks, costing the country over $1 billion annually. In this competition, we will need a foreign intelligence service to play forward.

Amongst all the pacing threats, we see tight collaboration industry, government, military, intelligence services and organized crime as part of a grand strategy. To this, Canada lacks an equivalent counter-strategy or public-private partnership.


The three key Intelligence challenges are:

  1. Perhaps, the greatest challenge of our lifetime will be the war on truth - from foreign influence, interference and mis-information;
  2. Rebalancing the playing field from Global economic competition;
  3. Getting in front of[5], the proxy wars between nation states who are directly targeting the private sector (often over cyberspace) thus bypassing the military, intelligence, security and police.

Canada has a blind spot when it comes to strategic foresighting, information collection and intelligence production relating to the political, military or economic activities of foreign states for the purpose of protecting Canadian interests globally.  HUMINT is necessary to see into information-denied environments.

For many of these reasons, it is more important than ever that we consider establishing a Canadian Foreign Intelligence Service, to provide accurate and timely foreknowledge to the capabilities, plans, designs and deceptions, of which our adversaries prefer to keep hidden. 


Espionage is the World’s second oldest profession.

Foreign Intelligence is serious business.  One needs a system (people, processes, technology) designed for a singular purpose. The culture and game is entirely different than security or signals intelligence, diplomacy, military operations or law enforcement. 

You can’t take volleyball, basketball and soccer players and ask them to play competitive hockey. Similarly, one can never win a game without playing offense.


It is envisioned that a Canadian Foreign Intelligence Service would principally be a HUMINT agency exclusively operating externally to Canada. It is reasonable to expect that a Service would need to have a sophisticated organic open source and technical intelligence collection capability dedicated to their unique operational missions and mandates. Contextualized analysis and the normalizing the reporting by an agency helps prepare the material for central analysis and consolidated intelligence estimates. Commensurately, an all-source analytical capacity would be needed to corroborate sources, provide context and develop narrative for that reporting makes sense to clients.


As previously mentioned, many government agencies and private sector entities collect both Sceuriety Intelligence (SI) and Foreign Intelligence (FI). This overlapping coverage requires cooperation, collaboration and coordination, the management of intelligence equities and operational de-confliction. A Canadian Foreign Intelligence Service would fit into this rubric while providing unique value to the community.

A great example of grey area is that of nuclear weapon proliferation. Certainly, one can make the case that this is both a FI and SI issue. Multiple agencies have a vested interest in this subject. Duplication of efforts or operational fratricide is a concern, as is an absence of engagement.   


Canadians need to stop pretending that we live in a walled garden. All G20 nations have foreign intelligence services - except Canada. Few of our adversaries actually believe that Canada does not conduct foreign intelligence operations, and as consequence, innocent Canadian citizens are arrested on fabricated spying charges.

All-source foreign intelligence provides context and enhanced narrative with global perspective with a wide-aperture, enhanced acuity and fidelity. Relying on allies for our foreign intelligence to access an external worldview, invites cultural and political bias into our decision-making. Working within an alliance is important and we need to be seen as pulling our weight.  

“Canada is a net consumer of intelligence produced by others for their own purposes.“[6]

The difference between SI and FI is not the geography but the value proposition. FI helps to level-the-playing-field for a country globally by providing unique information to decision makers. FI is mostly not about threats, although it can be.  It is about advantage and foreign policy outcomes. A FI service can also provide a covert capability including capacity building to allies. In contrast, SI is a defensive mandate to protect Canadians and Canada (at home and abroad from harm). 

It is worth noting that CSIS has collected Security Intelligence (SI) on foreign soil and Foreign Intelligence (FI) domestically under Section 16 of the Act for quite some time. Recent interpretation by the court has curtailed decades of domestic FI collection, and sparked this debate for both clarifying/strengthing CSIS current powers and establishing a Canadian Foreign Intelligence Service (CFIS).


A foreign intelligence agency cannot simply be created from transplanting resources and mechanisms from security, police, military or diplomatic worlds. The infrastructure is not easily reusable, nor is the analytical process. Some skills are transferrable but not all. Foreign intelligence requires scouting and recruiting unique talent and special training for analysts and operatives. The enterprise will require sophisticated support infrastructure.  Collection networks, non-traditional partnerships and a client ecosystem will need to be established from the ground up.

A high-performance culture will need to be cultivated to align with new missions and mandates.  The fusion of human and technical intelligence will require sophisticated big data analytics - much like SI but with a wider aperture. Such a foreign intelligence service will rely on open source intelligence (OSINT) to a far greater degree than other agencies and establishments.  Architects of the new agency will need to recognize the close link between (OSINT) and Foreign Intelligence (FI) and have deep experience in both.  Such a service would require integral Cyber support, distinct from Signals Intelligence SIGINT. The work will be substantively riskier than sitting comfortably back in an office in Canada or behind diplomatic protection. Thus requiring the next-level of operational security (OPSEC) and overwatch.

Big data is the currency of all intelligence agencies

The notion of a foreign intelligence was studied, designed and recommended a number of times in the recent past. Meanwhile, Canada’s allies and adversaries have build, deployed and formally operated such a capability since WWII. While, a commercial intelligence market has emerged with the rise of OSINT and data brokers to fill the gap.

“By refusing to use secret foreign intelligence gathering, Canada fails to do all it can to provide industry with the information needed to compete successfully in foreign markets, to say nothing of wider political matters.”[7]


Common criticisms for the establishment of a Canadian Foreign Intelligence Service are the potential costs and timelines. Some would say that such an agency would be enormously costly and take a generation to reach maturity, and as such can be ill-afforded during a time of final restraint and deficient.

Firstly, we cannot to compare a potential Canadian Service to US agencies. The CIA is a colossal enterprise including the launching of satellites and conducting paramilitary operations. A CFIS would have a much tighter focus and would not duplicate work already performed by other Canadian agencies.

“Even a small espionage service with a limited number of strategic [missions], given well-trained espionage officers, tough offensive tactics, and a bit of luck, could well produce intelligence of very high value to Canada and its closest allies on matters.”[8]

It is true that establishing deep clandestine HUMINT networks takes time. However, standing up an interim capability can be achieved quickly at a reasonable cost. Some sources can be recruited on day one. It is a question of leadership, expertise, efficacy, ingenuity and concentration. 

A Foreign Intelligence Service has greater opportunity to pay for itself than conventional security intelligence   because FI can deliver geo-political and economical intelligence, which converts into generating monetary profit while limiting financial losses.


Intelligence production can start early while the organization is still building capacity. This can be achieved by deep field research, OSINT, technical collection, outsourcing, or leveraging government and industrial partnerships. There are a number of great models within the commercial intelligence and the way in which other agencies outsource collection.

How we go about envisioning and creating a Canadian foreign intelligence service is important. Such a service is substantively different that what already exists. The talent and expertise will not be exclusively found within the current establishment. Nor should decision-makers in the federal government limit from whom they seek counsel.


In conclusion, Canada requires a Foreign Intelligence Service to help protect national interests in a globalized competitive environment. A foreign intelligence service would need to be an independent agency with separate legislation and mandate but subject to national intelligence review and oversight.

In this discussion paper we have provided recent historical context, shown why a distributed foreign intelligence mandate has reached it s potential and highlighted systemic gaps in coverage.  Foreign Intelligence, conducted abroad and principally by recruiting human sources, is fundamentally different from current missions.  Emerging threats, competition and opportunities in global security environment make for a compelling case for a Canadian foreign intelligence service – one that has a unique value proposition.  The common arguments against a new agency - essentially cost, timelines, risk and redundancy – are speculative. Whereas business analysis have shown opposite to be true. Experience has indicated that the cost of building a sovereign capability is far less than the price that Canadians are paying for not having one.

An advanced warning of the pandemic, which a foreign intelligence service may have been able to provide, could have saved billions of dollars and thousands of lives, paying for itself overnight. 

A foreign intelligence service would not compete with, but complement, other agencies. Hence, its mandate and resourcing would be tightly focused. A new service could be stood up rapidly, and cost-effectively, using near-gen technology, modern business processes, alliance and industrial partnerships, without the expense of inheriting legacy infrastructure or culture. Importantly, Canada, would be able to contribute more meaningfully to the alliance. 

The challenge is more complex than many perceive, but not as unsolvable as some would have led us to believe.

[1] That part of cyberspace that is not hardware or software. Human interpretation of and contribution to information. Human thought processes influence by cyber.

[2] A foreign intelligence service for Canada - Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute 2007

[3] This is China’s grand strategy for world domination economically and tied directly to military power and espionage.

[4] Misinformation is mistakes about the truth, disinformation is lies about the truth

[5] CFIS could get close to or infiltrate adversaries. Deploy forward in contented environments or adversarial space.

[6] IBID

[7] IBID

[8] Should Canada Have a Foreign Espionage Service? - Richard Geoffrey St. John, Canadian Military Journal

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Professional Development Institute of the University of Ottawa.

Dave McMahon has an honours degree in computer engineering from the Royal Military College of Canada and 35 years experience in defence, security and intelligence.  Dave was a CSO, COO to defence, telecommunications and intelligence organizations, co-chair or the Interdepartmental Committee on Information Warfare, expert witness to the Senate and special advisor to the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, and intelligence oversight and review. Dave is currently the Chair of the CADSI cyber council, and the CEO of Clairvoyance Cyber Corp. 

For full discussion paper visit:





Back to top