Bell, the British Columbia Telephone Company, and Cold War Surveillance

Late last year, a story broke about a researcher trying to get the Privy Council Office to release a secret surveillance order from the 1950s. This once again demonstrated why news investigations are vital for holding government accountable: the day after the CBC published its story the PCO decided to release the file, and Dennis Molinaro could finally get to finishing a journal article on the topic. More recently, he published the source documents he got from the PCO as a pdf, which if you’re a security & surveillance geek like me makes for great reading alongside his journal article (big up Dr. Molinaro!).

As a result, our understanding of Canadian state surveillance and Cold War security practices has had a significant boost. Something I discovered a couple of years ago was the difficulty of figuring out what police telephone surveillance in Canada was like prior to the era of the Privacy Act (the 1970s and earlier). These documents give us only a view into one particular surveillance program, and only in its early years. The file deals with the period around 1954 when the RCMP’s very very secret PICNIC program needed to be reauthorized, and there was a need to expand its wiretapping beyond Bell to other companies. Interestingly, one option (initially favored by Bell’s lawyer) was to use section 382 of the Railway Act, which allowed the government to take control of telephone infrastructure (“place at the exclusive use of the Government of Canada any electric telegraph and telephone lines, and any apparatus and operators which it has”), but this also required and Order in Council. To put the program on firmer legal footing, the government wanted the company’s cooperation in accepting warrants under the Official Secret Act (something the British Columbia Telephone Company was already happy to do). Some readers may wonder how railway regulation got connected to this mess, and maybe I’ll explain the pre-CTRC link between rail and telecom in another blog post. However, the government of the day, under Prime Minister Louis St Laurent, feared that using the Railway Act as a “cover plan” to govern surveillance was too much of a stretch, though they seemed prepared to go that route if Bell didn’t see things their way, and prepared some dubious legal justifications for doing so.

Bell’s position gave the government significant “difficulties”, and I would love to know the company’s reasoning. Presumably, using the Railway Act as a secret justification would simply have been easier, without having to bother with the paperwork of warrants. But the company was persuaded to agree with the government’s view, and the resulting surveillance regime targeted “subversives” and national security threats, where warrants were written for “a given area” rather than individuals, and seems to have carried on through the 1970s. This was the decade when Canada’s initial privacy and wiretapping laws were developed, replacing the previous jurisdictional patchwork.

The documents released by the PCO give us a fascinating insight into early domestic telecom surveillance in Canada, but this was certainly not representative of how police investigations were carried out in Canada. The RCMP’s (variously renamed) Special Branch/Security Service carried out tasks currently performed by CSIS, with a list of targets informed by a Cold War ideology that saw homosexuals, anti-war activists, and unions as a national security threat. Today, the internet and international terror networks are sometimes blamed for making foreign and domestic communications indistinguishable, but during the Cold War domestic surveillance was routinely carried out under the presumption that the targets were actually foreign agents or channels for foreign influence.

PICNIC was surveillance that was never intended to see the light of day, and it seems that early criminal investigations by Canadian police using wiretaps were also generally not meant to be revealed as evidence in court (it was apparently against RCMP policy to use wiretaps in 1973 and 1974, but they were still used for criminal intelligence). Molinaro writes about how “The monitoring of Canadians required a close level of partnership with corporate society; in this case, with telecommunications companies like Bell Canada”. However, I was reminded of a 1977 wiretapping story where the RCMP finally decided to use wiretap evidence in a drug case, and an officer explained in court about his routine practice of looking like a Bell employee and simply breaking into an apartment building’s terminal room with a screwdriver whenever he needed to tap a phone. In these cases, police did what they wanted with the phone network and there’s no indication that company executives ever complained (if they were even aware).

Kind of reminds me of this other time Canadian police decided to hack the phone network without permission


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