Ottawa pilot project testing internet technology that could help secure Canada’s foreign missions

Clipartix / Illustration by Hanna Lee

In a converted Ottawa bank branch, government workers are testing a system that could make Canadian embassies around the world more secure. A small team within Global Affairs Canada is running a pilot project using Light Fidelity (Li-Fi) information transmission, which promises to be significant faster and much harder to intercept than conventional Wi-Fi.

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Talking Point

A team at Global Affairs Canada is testing Light Fidelity (Li-Fi) information transmission, an alternative to Wi-Fi that it says could help make the country’s diplomatic missions abroad more secure.  

The Collaboration Centre at the foreign department’s Lester B. Pearson Building is, by the group’s reckoning, “the first office space in North America to be Li-Fi enabled.” The technology, first demonstrated to the public less than a decade ago, has yet to achieve widespread adoption. But it could make it easier for workers at Canadian missions abroad to do their job, and allow the government to try other new data-heavy communications technology.  

A Li-Fi system uses LED light bulbs that change brightness at high speeds to send signals, which are read by receivers connected to computers or mobile phones. Researchers at the Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines started working on data transmission using visible light in 2005; University of Edinburgh professor Harald Haas popularized the “Li-Fi” name during a 2011 TED Talk

The Global Affairs project is run by the Beyond2020 team, part of an ongoing series of government-wide public-service modernization programs. “We do beta testing of some of these technologies that are quite new, and won’t be procured for the government for some time,” said Ian Shaw, unit head and strategic adviser. “That’s where we decided [to] take a look at Li-Fi.”

The team bought and installed Li-Fi equipment in October 2018 from the North American distributors of French and German manufacturers. The pilot project will test the speed, reliability and security of the system. 

The technology is “much faster than Wi-Fi,” said Shaw. The centre has seen a two- to three-fold speed difference, although it’s limited by the broadband connection to which it is attached. 

But the system’s main advantage for the government may be security. “Outside of the cone of light that comes from the ceiling unit, the transmission cannot be intercepted,” said Shaw. “So that’s of interest to us because it addresses the fundamental flaw of Wi-Fi, in that sound waves can easily be intercepted at quite a distance.”

The technology could be used by Canadian missions in other countries. Currently, “smartphones and laptops working off Wi-Fi cannot be allowed into the secure sections of our [embassies and consulates] because of their security risk,” said Shaw. Such devices may link to an external network, potentially compromising them, since radio waves can travel through walls. A ceiling-mounted Li-Fi system and room-specific receivers would allow workers to use their devices—with the cellular and Wi-Fi settings disabled—to share data and deliver presentations with a much lower risk of interception or unauthorized connections.

Large companies are showing an increasing interest in Li-Fi. In December 2018, Dutch lighting giant Signify acquired San Diego-based Firefly Wireless Networks, one of the two companies that supplied the centre. Last week, Air France used a Li-Fi system on a commercial flight for the first time using technology from Oledcomm, a French startup whose equipment the centre bought through Longueuil, Que.-based Global LiFi Tech.

Signify declined to comment on Firefly’s business with the government. Global LiFi Tech did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Global Affairs has not disclosed the amount it spent on the equipment, citing government disclosure rules. 

None of Canada’s foreign missions have yet tested Li-Fi, and Shaw said it will be up to Shared Services Canada, the department that provides hardware and IT services for most of the federal government, to decide whether it’s used widely. The centre will demonstrate its Li-Fi system during a visit from the department’s officials in the next few days. 

Shared Services said it is not currently considering using the technology, and that it currently supports “over 11,700 wireless access points” across the government, which it installs when departments and agencies request them.

Shaw noted that the technology is more expensive than Wi-Fi and that some buildings can make do with the older technology. “At missions, [the] security risk [is] higher than here at headquarters,” he said.  

Missions are popular espionage targets. In 2009, Toronto-based digital watchdog Citizen Lab found that a spying operation called GhostNet that it traced to China had infected computers at some embassies of 11 countries including India and Germany, as well as foreign affairs ministries in Latvia and Bangladesh, among others. And in 2018, the Dutch government accused four Russian nationals of trying to hack the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons via its Wi-Fi network.

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The centre—which teams from Global Affairs and other departments use for meetings, brainstorming sessions and workshops—is continuing to use the Li-Fi technology. It’s replacing Global LiFi Tech’s original lamps with a ceiling unit to match Firefly’s equipment, although there’s no ongoing contract with the vendors. 

The system could prove useful for other technologies the centre hopes to test. While Wi-Fi is getting faster and “everything just loads” at the current rate, higher speeds may be necessary for more data-intensive communication methods, according to Shaw. “There may be the application down the road for things like holoportation … that require extremely fast transmission,” he said. 

The centre hasn’t acquired any equipment to holographically project employees to different locations yet, but it’s on the lookout. “It’s been a great interest of mine to see if we can actually make that happen,” Shaw said.