Federal employees concerned 'insider threat' training means spying on co-workers

At least two federal government departments have introduced training so staff can identify and report on "insider threats," raising concerns from employees who don't want to spy on their colleagues.

One researcher who took course described it as 'James Bond-type' training

At least two federal government departments have introduced training so employees can identify and report what’s being described as 'insider threats.' (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

At least two federal government departments have introduced training so staff can identify and report "insider threats," and it is raising concerns from employees who don't want to spy on their colleagues.

Insider threats are defined in the training documents as "purposeful, malicious action" by employees or contractors who have access to inside information, and who act "in opposition to the interests of the organization."

Since February, Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada have offered four on-site sessions to staff in Ottawa and Winnipeg, as well as providing online training to staff in other locations. 

An online training module was added to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's security awareness training in August. The department says all employees have been asked to take it.

CBC News has obtained copies of both courses. They are slightly different because they were developed for specific departments, but they cover much of the same information.

Several scientists told CBC the training puts them in an awkward position of spying on their co-workers and partners, some of whom have dual citizenship with China. Some also have a relationship with Chinese universities and the Chinese Academy of Science, which sends fully sponsored students to study in Canada.

The training provides specific instructions on how to report their suspicions. One researcher who took the course described it as "James Bond-type" training.

"It is an issue that we federal scientists are treated like secret agents," said the scientist, one of several who asked not to be identified over fears of being reprimanded for speaking to the media.

Staff are being told it is an offence and a national threat to share their research results and data outside their departments without proper authorization.

This page is a part of a training document meant to help employees at Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada identify and insider threats. (Health Canada/Public Health Agency of Canada)

Scientists say waiting for that authorization is not always realistic or practical, and say the training was created by people who have no idea about the extent of international collaboration in research.

"We scientists work in a fast-evolving, globalized world where sharing data and ideas with colleagues in our fields is the way to generate new knowledge. Because science is ultra-specialized, the colleagues working in the same field are usually in other countries," one researcher told CBC.

'There are real risks'

The training is in response to directives from the Treasury Board of Canada outlined in the Policy on Government Security and the Directive on Security Management, both of which came into effect on July 1, 2019.

"As risk levels vary across organizations, it is up to each Deputy Head to ensure their department's compliance with this Policy," a spokesperson for the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat wrote in an email in response to questions from CBC News.

While there are legitimate concerns, they have to be balanced with fairness, said one expert in Asian and transpacific relations.

"There are real risks. There are real concerns we have to deal with. But we have to do it in a way that respects individual integrity and privacy rights and, at the same time, makes people more aware that we are in a new era where technology is increasingly vital and increasingly seen as a national asset," said Paul Evans, a professor at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia.

Evans said the training provided to employees at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) provides several case examples, including that of Jeffrey Delisle, the Canadian naval intelligence officer who was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2013 for selling secrets to Russia.

The training course by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada provides a list of warning signs that could have identified Canadian naval intelligence officer Jeffrey Delisle as a potential threat. (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada)

The other four agriculture examples involve scientists with connections to China.

  • Yan Wengui and Zhang Weiqiang, who stole genetically modified rice seeds from Ventra Bioscience in Kansas and were apprehended for attempting to smuggle the secret grains (worth approximately $75 million US) to China. Yan was employed by the USDA. They were sentenced to 10 years in prison.

  • Mo Hailong, who was caught stealing GMO corn seeds that he was planning to sell to a Chinese agricultural conglomerate. He had already stolen and sold about 500 kg of the seed to a Beijing-based company. Mo was sentenced to three years in prison.

  • Huang Kexue, a Canadian scientist who worked for Cargill in Minnesota and stole and sold trade secrets and components to make a new food product. He sold these to parties in China, and also provided them for research to universities in China. Huang was sentenced to 87 months in prison.

  • Klaus Nielsen, who was fired from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), along with fellow scientist Wei Ling Yu. Neilsen pleaded guilty to attempting to export an infectious agent to China and was sentenced to two years' imprisonment. Yu fled the country and is believed to be in China.

Why provide training now?

None of the government departments will say why this specific training is being offered now. However, it comes as Cameron Ortis, director general of the RCMP's national intelligence co-ordination centre, is accused of preparing to share classified intelligence material with a foreign entity or terrorist organization.

Cameron Ortis, a senior intelligence official at the RCMP, is accused of violating the Security of Information Act and breach of trust for allegedly disclosing secrets to an unknown recipient. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

There is also an ongoing RCMP investigation involving two scientists originally from China who were evicted from the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg in July. It involves a possible "policy breach" that both the RCMP and Public Health Agency of Canada have said does not pose a risk to Canadians.

Meanwhile, the high-profile extradition case of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou has strained the relationship between Canada and China.

In the United States, the FBI is investigating hundreds of cases of possible Chinese intellectual property theft. The agency has warned universities and research agencies that China is a serious counter-intelligence threat. It's created a chill with many Chinese scholars who fear racial profiling.

'Overreaction can be worse than the problem'

"The cases that have been most public in the United States and Canada have involved people of Chinese descent, and I think we have to be very careful in any way inferring that the loyalty or the integrity of people with Chinese names is a more serious concern than for others," Evans said.

Paul Evans, a professor at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia, says steps to stop espionage need to be balanced with individual integrity and privacy right. (University of British Columbia)

"The overreaction can be worse than the problem itself in harming the careers and the reputations of the vast majority of people of Chinese descent."

Evans believes insider threats training is a turning point for Canada. 

"It's the mood and the necessity of the current era that there be more vigilance on these matters, but I think that the important point is not to see this as a China-specific problem. There are cases that relate to China, but the concerns are much broader with other countries, with other kinds of organizations," he said.

It's not just a concern for the federal government.

In a speech to the Economic Club of Canada last year, CSIS Director David Vigneault warned the business community about state-sponsored espionage and potential threats to the security and interests of Canada. 

"CSIS has seen a trend of state-sponsored espionage in fields that are crucial to Canada's ability to build and sustain a prosperous, knowledge-based economy," Vigneault said.

"I'm talking about areas such as AI, quantum technology, 5G, biopharma and clean tech. In other words, the foundation of Canada's future economic growth."

Vigneault said, "Our eyes should be wide open. There are signs we see at airports and elsewhere: 'If you see something, say something.'"


Karen Pauls

National Reporter

Karen Pauls is an award-winning journalist who has been a national news reporter in Manitoba since 2004. She has travelled across Canada and around the world to do stories for CBC, including the 2011 Royal Wedding in London. Karen has worked in Washington and was the correspondent in Berlin, Germany, for three months in 2013, covering the selection of Pope Francis in Rome. Twitter @karenpaulscbc