CSEC Headquarters' $1.2-Billion Price Tag Has Activists Outraged

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Plenary Group Canada
Plenary Group Canada

When the Harper government tables its latest budget Tuesday afternoon, it will include continued funding for a massive, opulent new headquarters for Canada’s electronic spy agency, CSEC.

The $1.2-billion building on Ottawa's east side — dubbed the "spy palace" by critics and believed to be the most expensive government building ever constructed in Canada — has become a rallying point for activists protesting in the wake of allegations that CSEC has been spying on Canadians, in contravention of its mandate and possibly Canadian law.

More than 45 organizations, including OpenMedia, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, Greenpeace and several unions, are launching a campaign Tuesday “to tell MPs to stop wasting billions on Canada’s expensive online spying apparatus,” according to a statement from OpenMedia.

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CSEC's $1.2-Billion 'Spy Palace' In Ottawa
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It’s part of a multinational event, dubbed “The Day We Fight Back,” meant to launch a new, ongoing campaign to bring government surveillance under control.

In the U.S., the campaign will focus on revelations that the National Security Agency has been involved in mass, warrantless surveillance of Americans’ phone and internet activities.

In CSEC’s new headquarters, the Canadian activist groups see a potent symbol of the growth of the surveillance state in recent years.

"We now have this dramatic, visual point of reference for CSEC — this grand piece of architecture rising in the east end — at a time when surveillance is becoming more and more of an issue," Ian MacLeod, an Ottawa Citizen reporter who covers national security issues, explained to CBC Radio last fall.

Government estimates place the official cost of the new CSEC headquarters at $867 million, but according to a CBC investigation last fall, the building’s final cost will be closer to $1.2 billion. And when the $3-billion contract to operate the building for 20 years is added, the new HQ’s cost soars past $4 billion.

As the CBC noted, the building has more floor space than Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, and cost enough to build “several” large hospitals. It will house about 2,000 CSEC employees.

“Canadians are wasting billions of taxpayer dollars on a bloated spy bureaucracy that is monitoring our private lives,” OpenMedia.ca executive director Steve Anderson said in a statement.

“It’s time for common sense to prevail. We need to rein in CSEC and other security agencies before they get even more out of control. That’s why we’re calling on MPs to make a firm commitment to introduce pro-privacy legislation to protect the privacy of all residents of Canada.”

Documents from Edward Snowden's trove of NSA data indicate that CSEC spied on Canadian travelers through WiFi hot spots at a major airport. The Harper government denies that the privacy of Canadians was invaded in the experiment, but privacy experts say the metadata collected by the CSEC would have exposed a great deal of private information about the targeted individuals.

The CSEC headquarters is being developed by Plenary Group Canada, an infrastructure company that specializes in government projects. The building is expected to be completed this year. Plenary Group boasts of the building’s innovative green technologies.

Walls of windows fill the facility with natural light and reduce the building’s electricity consumption and rainwater collection ponds reduce the facility’s consumption of water for irrigation,” the company’s fact sheet reads.

In an interview with CBC, former CSEC head John Adams admitted the building didn’t need to be an “architectural wonder.”

“But, you know, glass in this [CBC] building is the same price as glass in that [CSEC] building,” he said. “That building is just going to look an awful lot better than this building … That facility is going to be quite magnificent.”

Is it worth $1.2 billion to build a “magnificent” headquarters for Canada’s electronic spy agency? Let us know in the comments below.

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