A senior intelligence official with the RCMP who is charged with breaching Canada’s Security of Information Act dealt in secrets most of his adult life, according to friends, colleagues and records from his home province of British Columbia.
Cameron Ortis, 47, was charged on Friday in relation to alleged breaches of the federal secrets act and the Criminal Code during his time as a senior intelligence official for the Mounties. He is accused of obtaining, storing and processing sensitive information, the Crown says.
The news came as a shock to those who knew him from his time living and studying in the Vancouver area – but they had long known he worked with sensitive information.
“He was the most interesting guy I’ve ever met, yet he said the least,” said Christopher Parry, who met Mr. Ortis in the early 2000s through friends.
“Trying to corner him into revealing what government department he was working for, or what security company was offering a blank cheque to work for them, was a party game. You never got anything out of him other than the occasional few sentences, but they revealed he was living in a world we couldn’t handle.”
Mr. Ortis grew up in Abbotsford, in B.C.'s Fraser Valley, and studied at the University of Northern B.C., McMaster University and the University of British Columbia, graduating from the latter in 2006 with a Doctor of Science degree in political science.
He was particularly interested in the internet and its impact on security and societies; his thesis was entitled Bowing to Quirinus: Compromised Nodes and Cyber Security in East Asia.
Brian Job, a professor of political science at UBC, taught Mr. Ortis in graduate courses, then served as his PhD adviser and post-doctoral fellowship supervisor. He said Mr. Ortis had a strong work ethic and produced high-quality work on schedule while taking additional courses to learn technical skills needed for his thesis.
Prof. Job said Mr. Ortis focused on the potential impact of the internet on societies and their relationships with their government.
“It was at the time when the aura around the internet was that it was going to be this vehicle that opened up societies – that people would be more free to communicate within and across societies, and the capacity of states was going to be relatively limited to restrict or censor communications,” he said.
“Throughout the course of his research, Cameron came to suspect what we have certainly found to be the case, which is that efficient governments have a great capacity to control the internet, control the communications of the members of their societies, to shut others out and so on.”
While pursuing his PhD, friends say, Mr. Ortis received job offers from governments and private companies, taking contract work, but sharing few details.
Mr. Ortis left the Vancouver area shortly after completing his time at UBC to pursue job opportunities in Ottawa. Prof. Job kept in touch with his former student over the years, meeting for coffee or dinner whenever Mr. Ortis was in town.
Mr. Ortis never revealed much about his work.
“I knew he was working for the RCMP, and I knew that he was in a position of some considerable responsibility and sensitivity. Cameron was absolutely careful never to reveal details of any of the specific events or issues that he was working on," Prof. Job said.
“I’ve had former students who worked in government offices in Ottawa, and there’s always a temptation to drop hints, or inadvertently reveal, ‘Oh, I’m working on X.' That was never the case with Cameron.”
He began working for the government of Canada as an adviser in 2007, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Mr. Ortis’s name appears as a speaker or contributor to academic papers and conferences on topics including cybersecurity.
The program for an event called “The Policing Cyberspace International Conference 2008”, held in Vancouver, listed Mr. Ortis as a speaker for a panel on “critical infrastructure protection and botnets” and described him as a “senior intelligence research specialist” with the RCMP.
Mr. Ortis is credited with assisting an organization called CanKor, which says on its website that it is “concerned with seeking rational North Korea policy.” In a posting from August, 2013, organization representative Erich Weingartner says Mr. Ortis helped the group’s technical department establish its original web home at UBC.
In the acknowledgements section of his 2006 PhD thesis, Mr. Ortis thanks Paul Evans, a professor in UBC’s School of Public Policy and Global Affairs for providing contacts in East Asia for field research, and “the intellectual guidance and constant reminder that writing a dissertation is a marathon not a sprint.”
On Saturday, Mr. Evans told The Globe that Mr. Ortis was a “very fine Canadian," adding, “Nothing in my experience with Cameron would lead me to suspect he would be (in) any way involved in activities that would lead to such charges."
Mr. Parry said he believed Mr. Ortis’s personal relationships suffered because he was so restricted in what he could share.
“When you have to leave for weeks and can’t say where you’re going or what you’re doing, that’s rough,” he said. “And when you have questions about who is good and who is evil, there’s nobody to give you counsel on that."
Mr. Ortis’s father, Dave Ortis, said at his home in Abbotsford on Friday declined to say when he and his wife Loretta last spoke to or saw their son.
“It’s a nightmare,” he said.