Spy agency chief says new powers would help stop cyberattacks before they happen

The chief of Canada's Security Establishment is pushing for new powers to thwart cyber attacks before they happen and launch their own attacks against threatening groups.

CSE chief says federal networks hit with up to one billion cyber attacks per day

The Trudeau government has proposed new powers for Canada's cyberspy agency to stop cyberattacks sooner and hit back. (CBC)

The head of Canada's cyberspy agency says new powers proposed by the Trudeau government would allow her institution to stop cyberattacks before they are launched — instead of having to sit back and wait for them to happen.

Communications Security Establishment chief Greta Bossenmaier made the comments in a parliamentary committee appearance, during which she revealed the agency has been working overtime to block attacks on federal networks.

"We're now blocking over one billion malicious attempts to compromise government systems on average every day," Bossenmaier said during an appearance alongside Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan. "One billion attempts."

That equates to more than 11,500 every second, which the committee was told includes everything from minor pokes to assess the strength of a system, to malware, to dedicated hacking.

Communications Security Establishment (CSE) Chief Greta Bossenmaier believes a New Bill expanding the CSE's powers would give the agency more opportunities to fight cyber threats. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

That is where the Trudeau government's proposed national security legislation, Bill C-59, would come in, Bossenmaier said, and help nip some of those attacks in the bud by giving the CSE the power to launch offensive cyber operations.

"Instead of sort of standing back with a shield to try to protect against these billion malicious attempts per day and waiting for them to happen, we could actually go and say: 'Let's try to stop that cyberattack even from happening'," she said.

"So there could be a server outside that we know is now trying to infiltrate a Canadian system and steal Canadians' information, we could through this legislation stop that attack before it actually gets to our shores."

That ability to stop an attack before it happens is only one potential use for the CSEs' proposed new powers; the agency could also halt a terrorist attack and support military operations.

But the move toward government-authorized cyberattacks has raised numerous questions: What if, for example, Russia or China were behind an attack? How much information does the CSE need before acting against a potential threat?

A December report by leading Canadian cybersecurity researchers, said there is no clear rationale for expanding the CSE's mandate to conduct offensive operations.

It said the scope of the planned authority is not clear, nor does the legislation require that the target of the CSE's intervention pose a meaningful threat to Canada's security interests.

NDP public safety critic Matthew Dube, meanwhile, flagged a potential grey area when it comes to offensive cyber operations against foreign countries.

"It feels like there might be a slippery slope there in terms of international law as to what is military action and what is not," he said.

The committee was told that the new law includes strict approval processes and oversight provisions when it comes to offensive operations, and that the law specifically forbids any action against Canadians or targets in Canada.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan spoke alongside Bossenmaier at the committee, and fielded questions about the CSE collecting data on Canadians. They said that data can only be gathered in strict circumstances, and the information must already be public. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Sajjan said the proposed powers bring Canada in line with its closest allies, but he acknowledged that the government is, in some ways, still feeling its way through the issue.

"There is this nebulous feel because it is cyber and we need to be far better at understanding how these attacks occur, what their intent is, and then how do you deal with it," he told reporters after the committee meeting.

Bossenmaier and Sajjan also faced questions Thursday about the CSE capturing information about Canadians, including whether it would be allowed to use the type of data purportedly obtained by Cambridge Analytica from Facebook users.

The committee was told that while the law does let the CSE use publicly available information about Canadians, it can only do so in very strict circumstances and that the exemption does not apply to data obtained illegally.