CSIS chief calls commercial espionage 'the greatest threat to our prosperity'

The head of Canada's spy agency delivered a stern warning to business leaders today, telling them that state-sponsored espionage is the "greatest threat" to Canada's economy.

'Plainly said, there is state-sponsored espionage in Canada,' says David Vigneault

The head of CSIS is warning Canadian companies that their technology and sensitive commercial data are targets for state-sponsored commercial espionage. (Shutterstock / Motortion Films)

The head of Canada's spy agency delivered a stern warning to business leaders today, telling them that state-sponsored commercial espionage is the "greatest threat" to Canada's economy.

In a rare public speech, Canadian Security Intelligence Service Director David Vigneault told members of the Economic Club of Canada in Toronto that while terrorism remains "the number one national security related danger" in Canada, he considers commercial espionage "the greatest threat to our prosperity and national interest."

"Plainly said, there is state-sponsored espionage in Canada," said Vigneault in his speech. A copy of the speech was later posted online.

"No matter how it's done or who's behind it, economic espionage represents a long-term threat to Canada's economy and to our prosperity."

Vigneault said CSIS already has seen a trend emerging of state-sponsored espionage in fields like A.I., quantum technology, 5G wireless technology, biopharmaceuticals and low-carbon technology.

"In other words, the foundation of Canada's future economic growth," he said.

Vigneault went on to warn the crowd of business leaders that the information their businesses store —  customer data, intellectual property, prototypes, financial figures — are attractive to foreign players who yearn to "tilt the playing field in their favour and undermine the principles of fair competition."

'Eyes wide open'

Hostile states can acquire valuable business information through a variety of means: they can invest in a firm or buy it outright, and they can resort to cyberattacks and extortion. While CSIS spends much of its time pursuing terrorist threats, Vigneault said cyberattacks and commercial espionage pose greater strategic challenges.

Canadian Security Intelligence Service director David Vigneault urged business leaders to raise awareness of state-sponsored espionage in public and within their offices. (CSIS)

"Now, I'm not trying to fearmonger. I'm not suggesting that Canadian businesses should retreat from international partnerships and investments," he said.

"What I am saying is that this needs to be done with eyes wide open. The business community needs to be fully aware of the security threats to which it is exposed."

It's rare to hear directly from Canada's top spy, something Vigneault acknowledged.

"You will know that the first rule of Fight Club is, 'Don't talk about Fight Club.' Well, the first rule of CSIS has always been, 'Don't talk —​ period,'" he joked.

Vigneault wrapped his speech by urging the crowd to raise awareness of state-sponsored espionage in public and within their operations.

According to a recent Statistics Canada survey, more than one in five Canadian companies say they were hit by a cyberattack last year and businesses reported spending $14 billion on cybersecurity.