OTTAWA—Canadians are more exposed to “influence” operations than ever before according to an internal assessment from the country’s electronic spy agency.
A 2018 memo from the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) warned the rise of “web technology” like social media, along with Canadians’ changing habits for consuming media, make the population much more likely to encounter efforts by foreign powers to shape domestic political opinion.
“These new systems have generated unintended threats to the democratic process, as they deprive the public of accurate information, informed political commentary and the means to identify and ignore fraudulent information,” reads the memo, classified as Canadian Eyes Only.
“Foreign states have harnessed the new online influence systems to undertake influence activities against Western democratic processes, and they use cyber capabilities to enhance their influence activities through, for example, cyber espionage.”
“Foreign states steal and release information, modify or make information more compelling and distracting, create fraudulent or distorted ‘news,’ or amplify fringe and sometimes noxious opinions.”
The memo was prepared as Canada’s intelligence agencies were engaged in an exercise to protect the 2019 federal election from foreign interference.
Elections across the democratic world — the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Germany and the European Union — have in recent years been the targets of misinformation and cyberespionage campaigns from hostile countries.
There is no evidence that Canada’s recent federal election was the target of sophisticated cyber espionage or misinformation campaigns.
But another document prepared by CSE makes clear that Canadian politicians have already been targeted by foreign “influence” campaigns.
An undated slide deck prepared by the CSE suggested “sources linked to Russia popularized (then Global Affairs Minister Chrystia) Freeland’s family history” and targeted Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s appearance and turban in Russian-language media outlets in the Balkans.
The agency appears to be referring to stories, which were reported by mainstream Canadian news outlets, suggesting Freeland’s grandfather edited a Nazi-associated newspaper in occupied Poland.
The stories were “very likely intended to cause personal reputational damage in order to discredit the Government (of) Canada’s ongoing diplomatic and military support for Ukraine, to delegitimize Canada’s decision to enact the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Offices Act, and the 2018 expulsion of several Russian diplomats,” the documents, first reported by Global News, state.
The attacks against Sajjan, meanwhile, were “almost certainly” intended to discredit the NATO presence in Latvia, where Canadian forces are deployed as part of a NATO mission to deter Russian expansion after the invasion of Crimea.
“Since Canada’s deployment to Latvia, subtle and overtly racist comments pertaining to … Sajjan’s appearance, particularly his turban, have consistently appeared across Russian-language media in the Baltic region,” the documents read.
“Even ostensibly professional news sources are not above such descriptions. When … Sajjan attended a conference in Latvia in October 2017, he was described by Vesti.lv as ‘a large swarthy man in a big black turban.’”
Compared to some of the attacks on Western democracies, those two influence campaigns were minor in scale and impact. But the intelligence agency suggested that more and more countries are turning to cyber capabilities to further their own goals at the expense of other nations. And CSE’s analysis suggests their willing to play the long game.
“In the longer-term, influence activities, both cyber and human, are likely to challenge the transparency and independence of the decision-making process, reduce public trust (and) confidence in institutions, and push policy in directions inimical to Canadian interests,” the documents, released under access to information law, read.
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“Many European states and some private companies have begun to develop countermeasures to malicious activities aimed at democratic processes, including increasing public understanding and resilience. However, little has been done to create robust, institutionalized multilateral responses.”
Parliament’s new national security review committee has completed a review of foreign espionage activities in Canada and submitted it to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The classified report detailing their findings is expected to be released early in 2020, once the House of Commons resumes sitting.