Foreign intelligence services see federal employees — and the proprietary information they carry — as prized targets, and precautions must be taken to prevent the pilfering of secret files, says the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
The threat has prompted CSIS to prepare a special guide advising Canadian officials to be wary of saying too much around taxi drivers, letting a laptop computer out of their sight, or even stashing confidential material in a hotel safe.
A copy of the 2012 CSIS publication, "Far From Home: A Travel Security Guide for Government Officials," was obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.
Espionage is at a level equal to that seen during the Cold War, and Canada is a leader in technology, energy and other economic sectors, Dick Fadden, then head of CSIS, says in a foreword to the guide.
"We also have prized political connections owing to our close relationship with the United States and to our membership in important international bodies," writes Fadden, who recently became deputy defence minister.
"We are a valued target in the eyes of intelligence agencies."
In the age of globalization, Canada's prosperity depends more than ever on maintaining an international profile, and that means Canadians have to venture into the world, Fadden says. "The key is to do so safely and with eyes wide open."
In an accompanying June 2012 cover letter to then-public safety minister Vic Toews, Fadden notes that he planned to send copies to deputy ministers across government as well as Toews' chief of staff to share with counterparts. He also suggested Toews may wish to distribute the guide to cabinet colleagues.
The guide warns travellers the information they provide on a visa application form could be used to assess their worthiness as a target, meaning only necessary details should be provided.
"For example, some countries will request passport numbers of family members, even if they are not travelling with you," says the guide, stamped "For Official Use Only."
It also advises that any details given to airline or border control agents may be collected by the host country — or shared with other countries.
Among the CSIS advice to officials: conceal baggage tags, assume luggage will be searched in transit, and know that in many countries you will be subject to physical surveillance. Searches may entail copying of documents, including those on a laptop or smartphone.
While some might think foreign spies are after only big-ticket quarry like fighter jet plans, they might simply covet a government agency's personnel organization chart, CSIS says.
"Never talk shop or volunteer information in front of taxi drivers, waiters and bartenders, who could be intelligence officers or informants," says the guide. "Every little bit of information can be useful to a competitor."
The spy service cautions against accepting gifts such as digital memory keys that can give someone remote access to a computer once plugged in.
It suggests travelling with an alternate telecommunications device that contains no sensitive data and can be wiped clean when one returns home. "You do not want to take abroad a device packed with emails, contacts and documents."
Foreign agents may employ the relatively subtle technique of eliciting information through random conversation, perhaps appealing to one's ego or emphasizing mutual interests.
But CSIS also cautions travellers about the "honey trap" — sexual seduction as a means toward blackmail.
"Honey traps often involve the clandestine recording of an intimate encounter. These recordings are either used to blackmail or publicly embarrass the victim," advises the guide.
"There are also reports of individuals who have suspected they were drugged and who awoke to find that their hotel room had been searched, smartphone stolen and secret business documents missing."
Some travellers have returned to their hotel rooms to find people searching their belongings or conducting unnecessary maintenance activities, CSIS warns. "Intrusions are frequently accomplished with the co-operation of the hotel staff."
Classified documents are best kept on one's person or in secure storage at the Canadian Embassy, says the spy service.
Ironically, recent high-profile security breaches have taken place not in far-flung authoritarian states, but on Canadian soil.
Five years ago, Maxime Bernier resigned from Stephen Harper's cabinet after he acknowledged leaving classified documents at the Montreal home of Julie Couillard, his former girlfriend, for more than a month. Couillard became the centre of a political firestorm when her past ties to outlaw bikers surfaced.
Just this year, naval intelligence officer Jeffrey Delisle was sentenced to 20 years in prison after pleading guilty to passing classified western intelligence to Russia in exchange for cash on a regular basis for more than four years.
But the guide underscores the threat to unwitting federal employees, who may believe foreign travel has become so common that it poses few risks.
CSIS cautions that in some countries the threat of kidnapping is significant, as many groups depend on such activities to fund their operations. "Consequently, you may want to look for signs of hostile reconnaissance, as well as to vary your routines and the routes you take to and from your hotel and place of work."
In 2008, veteran Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler, working as a United Nations envoy to Niger, and colleague Louis Guay were captured by elements of al-Qaida and held for more than four months.
"Terrorists use the same methods as intelligence officers do in order to obtain information," says the guide. "They will elicit information, as well as gather it through other types of collection means. Security awareness is your best defence."