Politics

Canadians, politicians targeted by foreign interference, electronic spy agency says

Canadians are vulnerable to foreign interference in this fall's federal election — and the meddling is already underway, according to a new report from Canada's electronic spy agency.

Canada can expect election interference, but not on scale seen in U.S: report

The CSE says more than one foreign foe has wielded cyber tools on social media to spread false or misleading information about Canada on Twitter. (Regis Duvignau/Reuters)

Canadians are vulnerable to foreign interference in this fall's federal election — and the meddling is already underway, according to a new report from Canada's electronic spy agency.

The Communications Security Establishment says that since the 2015 federal election, Canadian political leaders and the Canadian public have been targeted by foreign cyber interference activities.

The details come in a new report entitled "2019 update: cyber threats to Canada's democratic process," released Monday.

The report says more than one foreign foe has wielded cyber tools on social media to spread false or misleading information about Canada that is "likely to polarize Canadians or undermine Canada's foreign policy goals."

In another example cited in the report, the CSE — tasked with protecting some of Canada's most valuable electronic information and gathering foreign signals intelligence — says a foreign adversary has manipulated information on social media to promote views highly critical of government legislation imposing sanctions and banning foreign officials accused of human rights violations from travelling.

They often go about doing this by hijacking Twitter accounts or opening new ones that tweet about sports or entertainment to attract followers. They then switch to political messaging with Canadian themes, said the CSE.

Some meddling expected

The signal agency's report says that while Canada is likely to feel some sort of foreign cyber interference ahead and during the October election, it's unlikely to rival our neighbours to the south.

"Even if a foreign adversary does develop strategic intent to interfere with Canada's democratic process, we consider foreign cyber interference of the scale of Russian activity against the 2016 United States presidential election improbable at this time in Canada in 2019," it notes.

"However, we judge it is very likely that Canadian voters will encounter some form of foreign cyber interference ahead of, and during, the 2019 federal election."

It's a warning the government is issuing as well.

Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould expresses disappointment in social media companies and their level of cooperation in protecting the Canadian electoral system. 1:13

While attending a G7 meeting last week, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said it's likely foreign actors will attempt to meddle in Canada's elections.

When asked whether she feared Russian interference in the election, Freeland said she was "very concerned."

Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould has said it would be be "naive" to assume Canada won't be targeted in the lead-up to the election, given its membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and participation in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance.

Ottawa not happy with platforms

While Canada's paper-based balloting provides some shelter from interference, enemies could try to undermine Canada's trust in the democratic process, says the agency.

"It is likely, however, that adversaries will try to deface a website or steal personal information that could be used to send out incorrect information to Canadians, causing an inconvenience or disruption to the election process," said the report.

"The aim of such activity would be to sow doubt among voters, causing them to question the legitimacy of the election. This activity may even discourage certain voters from participating in the democratic process entirely."

Monday's assessment comes as a follow to the agency's 2017 report on threats.

"Since we published our June 2017 report, cyber threat activity against democratic processes has become even more prevalent worldwide," says the report. "We assess that the likelihood of cyber threats targeting Canada's democratic process during the 2019 federal election has increased."

The report mentions Twitter by name and alludes to other social media platforms, but it stops short of recommending steps to prevent the spread of harmful disinformation.

On Monday, Gould said her department has met with the major platforms regarding protection "to varying degrees of success."

"I'm not feeling great about where we are right now...we have not really seen that much progress with them," she said. "There's a lot left to be desired in terms of how seriously they're taking these issues."

The tongue lashing comes a little late for NDP MP Nathan Cullen, that party's democratic reform critic, who has been pushing for more regulation.

"The government chose not to bring in tough, new rules for their last election bill," said Cullen.

"We probably still wouldn't have seatbelts if government hadn't acted because the auto makers weren't going to do it. The social media giants aren't going to do it."

With the federal elections mere months away, Canada's electronic spy agency, the Communications Security Establishment, says Canadians are vulnerable to foreign interference. Scott Jones, the head of the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security breaks down the threats. 9:59

For its part, Google says it plans to keep working with the Canadian government.

"Just as Google is committed to providing Canadians with information and services to help them participate in the federal election, we're equally committed to combating misinformation and working with the Canadian government to fight cyber threats," said Colin McKay, head of government policy at Google Canada.

"Google is also working closely with the [CSE's] Cyber Security Centre to prepare for the election, sharing information on how best to secure networks and accounts from malicious attacks."

In an attempt to curb interference, the Canadian government has said it will set up an internal team to sound the alarm if it sees evidence of meddling. 

The new "critical election incident public protocol" group is made up of five bureaucrats who will alert the public if they become aware of interference during the campaign period, also known as the writ period.

If the team determines there's a substantial threat — either foreign or domestic — it would alert the prime minister, political party officials and Elections Canada of its intent to hold a news conference to warn the public and advise people on what they should do to protect themselves.

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