The Communications Security Establishment, the federal agency responsible for information security, has begun to assess the potential threat that foreign hackers could pose to the political process in Canada.

Karina Gould, the minister for democratic institutions, was mandated by the prime minister in January to "lead the government of Canada's efforts to defend the Canadian electoral process from cyber threats." 

Specifically, she was instructed to ask CSE to "to analyze risks to Canada's political and electoral activities from hackers, and to release this assessment publicly," and "to offer advice to Canada's political parties and Elections Canada on best practices when it comes to cybersecurity."

That the CSE has begun that work was first reported by the Toronto Star on Friday.

"We've seen, around the world, questions and concerns about foreign interference in elections, and we simply want to make sure that Canadians can continue to have confidence in the strength and excellence of Canada's elections," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Friday when asked about the Star report.

"That's why we've asked our security agencies to work both with Elections Canada and with individual political parties to ensure that we are going to be able to continue to have free and fair elections determined by Canadians."

Gould has reached out to the major parties to discuss the threat.

Foreign hacking was an issue during last year's American presidential election — Russian hackers stole and leaked emails from the Democratic National Committee — and Emmanuel Macron's campaign was the victim of a massive leak this month in the final days of the French presidential election.

A recent story in the New York Times detailed the steps the Macron campaign took to obstruct hackers.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has also expressed concern that her country's upcoming elections could be targeted.

Parties react to CSE study

A Liberal spokesperson said the party welcomes the CSE's advice.

A spokesperson for the Conservative Party confirmed a meeting with Gould and said it will wait to see what the government brings forward.

The national director of the NDP says the party takes the issue seriously, but expressed some reluctance about working with the CSE.

"We are always willing to listen to new ideas on how to make sure our systems are safe from hacking," said Robert Fox, "but we would be more inclined to work closely with the CSE if we knew there was a real, strong parliamentary oversight of Canada's security agencies."

The party declined to elaborate on its concerns.

The Liberal government passed legislation through the House of Commons last month to create a committee of parliamentarians charged with reviewing the actions of Canada's national security agencies, but New Democrats voted against the bill because, they argue, the committee will not be sufficiently empowered.

A spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale defended the level of oversight provided for in the government's legislation and the CSE's involvement.

"While every political party is free to decide how closely they wish to work with CSE, we'd like to reassure them of our good faith on this non-partisan objective," said Scott Bardsley. "Surely if they have reasonable disagreements about unrelated legislation, they are more than capable of making that point to Canadians in other ways."