OTTAWA–Canada’s electronic spy agency has briefed election officials on the threat of foreign interference in elections at the provincial and territorial level.
The Communications Security Establishment, Canada’s cyber defence and espionage agency, said Thursday that it has yet to observe “direct” foreign meddling at the provincial level, including in recent elections in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick.
“There’s always suspicions as we come to an election, but we haven’t seen anything direct that has hit on the provincial level that came from the foreign space,” said Scott Jones, the head of CSE’s new Canadian Centre for Cyber Security, in an interview.
“But we’re always looking.”
Jones, who previously led CSE’s IT security division, noted the agency can only monitor foreign threats — any election meddling by Canadians would be outside their jurisdiction. He also added that some forms of interference, such as the use of fake accounts or “bots” to boost messages, are difficult to discern until after the fact.
Last year, the agency concluded that the 2015 general election was targeted by “low-sophistication cyber threat activity” — mostly activists attempting to influence the vote by releasing internal government documents. The activity didn’t amount to much, and certainly was nowhere near the persistent, nation-state-level interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
But CSE predicted that the 2019 election will see similar meddling attempts, and suggested some campaigns will be “well-planned and target more than one aspect of the democratic process.”
According to the agency’s previous assessment, Canada’s electoral system is relatively secure from cyber attacks due to its low-tech, pen-and-paper nature. Political parties, which currently have few restrictions on how they handle sensitive personal data, and the media, which can be snookered into amplifying fake or misleading information, are much more attractive targets.
Jones told the Star that CSE will release a new report early next year to outline more specifically the threats the agency believes will be aimed at the electoral system, and what politicians and the public can do to counter them.
Alex Boutilier is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @alexboutilier