Federal election: CSE launches operation to protect against foreign attacks
Canada’s cyber spy agency has launched a defensive operation to protect last year’s federal election – including the party leaders’ debate – from disruption by foreign agencies.
The operation was designed to disrupt hostile cyber activity targeting the electoral system, as well as protect political parties from foreign interference, the Communications Security Establishment said in its annual report released on Tuesday.
The agency said it has established strong and effective measures to protect the electronic infrastructure used by Elections Canada.
“CSE has the capabilities and legal mandate to disrupt malicious online activity that threatens Canada’s democratic processes,” the report said.
“Had there been malicious cyber activity targeting the electoral process, CSE would have been ready to act immediately.”
The agency said it reached out to all registered parties to determine their cybersecurity concerns and offered advice and threat intelligence to address those priorities.
He also worked with the Debates Commission on Leadership and Debate Venue to review their information technology infrastructure and provide cybersecurity advice, he said.
The agency also said it had halted attempts by foreign-based extremists, including those affiliated with Islamic militant groups, to recruit Canadians and spread violent propaganda here.
As part of its role in fighting cybercrime, it removed 11,500 fake websites in Canada, including fake government sites, and emails designed to trick Canadians into sharing personal information or clicking on links infected.
He also thwarted and exposed Russian disinformation campaigns, including claims that Russia was only attacking military targets in Ukraine.
Like the UK and the US, Canada’s cyber spy agency has declassified intelligence to boost Russian campaigns to spread lies about the war in Ukraine.
In the weeks leading up to the invasion of Ukraine, he warned Canadian critical infrastructure organizations, such as national communications companies, to strengthen their defenses against Russian-backed cyber threats.
CSE intercepts and analyzes electronic communications and other foreign signals to alert the government to the activities of foreign entities seeking to undermine Canada’s national security.
The foreign threats he reported included espionage, including attempts to steal trade and business secrets, kidnappings of Canadians abroad, terrorism and extremism, and threats against Canadians and Canadian Forces Abroad.
The agency is prohibited by law from spying on Canadians at home and abroad as well as people in Canada. He is not authorized to divulge their names, e-mail addresses or computer IP addresses if he comes across them in the course of his work – for example, when monitoring the communications of a foreign extremist.
However, other federal agencies and foreign partners who receive these reports may request details of Canadians’ information if they have legal authority and appropriate justification.
The report challenges the national intelligence watchdog’s conclusion last year that more than a quarter of the 2,351 disclosures of information about Canadians by the spy agency over a five-year period were not sufficiently justified.
The National Security and Intelligence Review Agency said in a report last June that CSE disclosed additional personal information to customers beyond what was requested and explained that it was standard practice.
Tuesday’s spy agency report says that after detailed analysis and consultation with government partners, it is satisfied that all but one of the disclosures complied with the Privacy Act. The one disclosure that was non-compliant was removed and the data was purged by the receiving institution, he said.
Foreign cyber operations are the newest part of the spy agency’s mandate.
In 2019, it received legal authority to act in cyberspace against foreign adversaries to protect Canada with defensive and “active” cyber operations, which must be authorized by the Minister of Defence.
Daniel Rogers, deputy head of the Communications Security Establishment, said his foreign intelligence activities include countering “violent extremism in all its forms”, a government priority.
He said CSE uses its “capabilities to help disrupt some of these foreign threats.”
“Through this annual report, we have endeavored to be as transparent as possible about the nature of these operations,” he said.
The report also said he helped encrypt top secret documents and secure sensitive communications between government ministers and officials.
This was especially important during the pandemic when people worked in remote locations and required encrypted video links.
“We provide devices that allow ministers and senior officials to communicate securely from anywhere. In February 2021, we partnered with the Privy Council Office and Shared Services Canada to add secure video to address the continued need for virtual meetings at the classified level,” he said. “The demand for these services has continued to grow this year.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on June 28, 2022.