Did the Adorable RCMP Catch a Canadian Edward Snowden?
Is Cameron Ortis a spy? Or a whistleblower?
When the Canadian secret police broke into Cameron Ortis's Ottawa apartment in August 2019, they found a handwritten note with the words "The Project" and "John Lemon's blog removing your pdf metadata" and, after searching his computer, discovered that at least 25 pdfs "had been processed and sanitized to remove identifying information," according to the CBC. Ortis was arrested a month later, on September 12, 2019, and faces a slew of charges, including violating the Security of Information Act, Canada's official secrets law that binds the secret police to life-long secrecy. If convicted, Ortis, 49, faces decades in prison.
To hear the Canadian government tell the tale, Cameron "Cam" Ortis--a former high-ranking RCMP official with access to shared Five Eyes signals intelligence, presumably through XKEYSCORE--is an accused spy caught in the act of preparing to "leak" secrets to a "foreign entity or terrorist organization". Breathless reporting by Canadian state TV, the CBC, warns that Ortis "had material that, if released, would cause a "HIGH" degree of damage to Canada and its allies," and that "the contents of the reports could reasonably lead a foreign intelligence agency to draw significant conclusions about allied and Canadian intelligence targets, techniques, methods and capabilities."
Ortis also stands accused of leaking information in 2015, in addition to preparing to do so again in 2019.
But closer examination of the publicly available details make Ortis look more like a Canadian Edward Snowden and less like a spy selling secrets to a hostile foreign power like Russia or China or Israel. Why does the Canadian government use weasel words like "leaking" to a "foreign entity or terrorist organization"--which sounds a lot more like a whistleblower leaking to a journalist? Even The New York Times would be a "foreign entity" from the Canadian legal perspective. As for "a terrorist organization", current President of the United States Joe Biden once slandered journalist Julian Assange as a "high-tech terorrist." An aide close to former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper even publicly called for Assange to be assassinated. In the demented minds of people who work for the so-called "intelligence community," blowing the whistle to a journalist could be seen as "leaking to a terrorist organization."
Maybe Ortis really is a spy. Well then, what country was he spying for? Past prosecutions of spies in Canada (and in the United States) involved public denunciation of an espionage plot, gleeful finger-pointing at the offending nation, unambiguous use of the word "spying", and, usually, a guilty plea.
The most recent such case of a spy put on trial in Canada looks nothing like the Ortis case. In 2013, Canadian Navy Sub-Lieutenant Jeffrey Delisle, who possessed "Top Secret Five Eyes Only" clearance, roughly similar levels of sensitive access as Ortis, was convicted of selling secrets to Russia under the Security of Information Act--the same law under which Ortis is charged.
Delisle was arrested in January 2012, pled guilty, and was sentenced in February 2013. He spent 13 months in pre-trial detention, was sentenced to twenty years, was granted day parole within five years in 2018, and received full parole in 2019. A second such case--that of Stephen Joseph Ratkai, convicted of selling secrets to the Soviet Union--played out in a similar manner, again, completely different from the Ortis prosecution.
But Ortis has not pled guilty. He is demanding his day in court. Something does not add up. What is really going on here?
Since when do spies betraying their country go to the trouble of redacting pdfs? Harm reduction? At the point that you're selling secrets to a foreign government, knowing that people will probably die because of your actions, bothering to remove metadata from pdfs seems like the last thing you'd care about. And 25 pdfs? Ortis had access to vast amounts of highly-classified Five Eyes signals intelligence. Why not 2500? Or 25,000? If he were truly spying for a foreign power, why didn't he simply share all the pdfs? Unredacted?
An alternate explanation is that Ortis stripped pdf metadata to cover his tracks and prevent capture, but “not wanting to get caught” is a hallmark of both whistleblowers and spies.
Scepticism about the Canadian government's claims seems warranted, and not just for the reasons above, but because of the nature of the work Ortis was performing when he was arrested. Ortis was the director-general of the RCMP’s National Intelligence Coordination Centre, whose task, at the highest level, was to break down barriers between signals intelligence and domestic law enforcement--using SIGINT to put domestic criminals in jail, a process known as parallel construction.
Parallel construction happens when the government uses secret signals intelligence to investigate a criminal, tips off the uniformed police, who then construct a case in parallel (hence: parallel construction) with evidence admissible in court. Just one problem--the only way to keep secret the original source of the investigation is for police officers to lie under oath in open court.
This is now explicitly legal in the UK, a Five Eyes ally whose sociopathic signals intelligence agency, GCHQ, works hand in hand with Canadian spies. The UK Investigatory Powers of Act of 2016 legalized parallel construction, "the practice where prosecutors lie about the origins of evidence to judges and juries--thereby depriving the defendant of a fair trial because he cannot review or question the truth of the evidence against him," as British news site The Register reported at the time.
Parallel construction first came to public attention in 2013 when Reuters broke the story, writing "Although these cases rarely involve national security issues, documents reviewed by Reuters show that law enforcement agents have been directed to conceal how such investigations truly begin--not only from defense lawyers but also sometimes from prosecutors and judges."
Ortis therefore had access to extremely sensitive and controversial information about how Five Eyes conspire to violate the civil liberties of their own citizens, and how police officers lie in court during criminal trials in Canada, thus making a mockery of the criminal justice system.
Was Ortis questioning the ethics of his own work, like Snowden did, and preparing to blow the whistle?
"He’s basically Clark Kent in looks and in his dedication to do the right thing," longtime friend Chris Parry told Canadian newspaper The National Post. "He’s the closest thing I know to a superhero."
"He’s been offered all this money so many times to take a cushy job and he’s never taken it," Perry added, meaning that private sector cybersecurity roles pay vast amounts of money more than a job at the RCMP. "Unless there’s some other element to it--blackmail or gambling--it doesn’t make sense... There’s got to be more to it."
"There's got to be more to it."
Ortis's plan to leak was discovered during the controversial Five Eyes investigation into Phantom Secure, a Vancouver, British Columbia-based corporation that sold security-hardened encrypted Blackberry phones to VIPs, celebrities--and also Mexican drug cartels and murderous Australian biker gangs.
Under a novel legal theory, a joint US-Canada-Australia investigation shut down Phantom Secure and arrested the founder, Vincent Ramos, who committed no crime other than providing secure phones the government found difficult to snoop on (a fundamental right, many in the cybersecurity world, including possibly Ortis, might argue).
Did Ortis object to the investigation? We don't know, but we do know that Ortis sent an email to Vincent Ramos offering him information.
"You don't know me," Ortis wrote to Ramos, according to a selectively-released document from CSE, Canada's NSA. "I have information that I am confident you will find very valuable."
“In Ramos’s emails, the FBI found a classified memo prepared by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police,” The Walrus reports. “The file had intelligence on Ramos himself, information that would have been invaluable in his attempts to elude investigators—information Ramos should never have possessed.”
What kind of information? We don't know. We do know that Ramos is a Canadian citizen, and Phantom Secure was a Canadian corporation with offices in suburban Vancouver, British Columbia. That means neither Ramos nor Phantom Secure are the "foreign entity" or "terrorist organization" the Canadian government spookily hints at.
We do know that the joint investigation into Phantom Secure blatantly lied to the public. The US DOJ released a memorandum that said "to date, neither Australian, Canadian, nor American law enforcement has identified a single non-criminal user of Phantom Secure devices."
But a Toronto-based early user of Phantom Secure phones told Motherboard that "having a Phantom phone was originally a status symbol with VIP crowds," and he had worked with real estate agents and accountants who had purchased Phantom devices. Ramos also gave free Phantom phones to rappers and athletes, including Toronto Raptors players.
"Many people believed that what I was doing was completely legal and that this was a war on privacy," Ramos told Motherboard in an email from prison.
Is Cameron Ortis a spy? Or a Canadian superhero trying to blow the whistle on the government's war on privacy? The publicly-available evidence is far from clear. So far all the world has seen is lopsided coverage fed to gullible Canadian journalists from a government in Ottawa intent on locking him away for "leaking" to a "foreign entity." But too many parts of the government's narrative fall apart under close examination.
Do you have information regarding the Ortis case? Get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org, Signal +1 647 269 0074, GPG CF0F98AB28C3A5124B69AEF23AAA8B76E59C09FC
J.M. Porup is a freelance national security and cybersecurity reporter based in Berlin. Fuck the publication ban.