Canadian voters will very likely experience some kind of online foreign interference related to the coming federal election, a new report from the national cyberspy agency warns.
But the agency says the meddling is unlikely to be on the scale of Russian interference against the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
In an assessment released today, Canada’s Communications Security Establishment says that last year half of all advanced democracies holding national elections were targeted by cyberthreat activity.
It’s a threefold increase since 2015, and the Ottawa-based CSE expects the upward trend to continue this year.
The report suggests Canada can expect foreign adversaries to try to sway voters by focusing on polarizing social and political issues, promoting the popularity of one party over another, or trying to shape the public statements and policy choices of a candidate.
Malign actors also use cybertools to target the websites, email, social-media accounts, networks and devices of political parties, candidates and their staff, the report adds.
The CSE’s assessment, an update of a pathbreaking effort two years ago, is being presented at a news conference this morning by Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould.
It comes just six months before Canadians head to the ballot box in a federal election.
Electoral processes around the world have been targeted by cyberthreat activity in recent years, the CSE says.
“However, as we noted in 2017, Canada’s federal elections are largely paper-based and Elections Canada has a number of legal, procedural and information technology (IT) measures in place that provide very robust protections against attempts to covertly change the official vote count.”
It is likely, however, that adversaries will try to deface websites or steal personal information that could be used to send out incorrect information to Canadians, causing some kind of disruption to the election process, the report says.
The aim of such activity would be to “sow doubt among voters,” making them question the election’s legitimacy or discouraging them from even taking part.
Nefarious actors hijack Twitter accounts or open new ones that tweet about popular subjects like sports or entertainment to gain followers, the CSE notes. “However, these accounts then switch to political messaging with Canadian themes following international events involving Canada.”
The report cites a 2016 episode in which false information appeared online about a “failed Canadian raid” against Russian separatist positions in Ukraine, alleging that 11 Canadian military personnel were killed. People shared an English-language version of the item over 3,000 times on Facebook.
Considerable evidence has pointed to Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
In 2017, Facebook said hundreds of dubious accounts, likely operated out of Russia, spent about $100,000 on some 3,000 ads about contentious issues such as LGBT rights, race, immigration and guns from June 2015 to May 2017.
Facebook later said an estimated 10 million people in the United States saw the ads.
In addition, the U.S. Justice Department has announced indictments against Russian intelligence agents for allegedly hacking Democratic party emails and computers during the 2016 campaign.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland warned just last week that malicious foreign players would target Canada’s coming election, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pointed the finger at Russia as the most likely meddler.
The report says an increasing number of foreign adversaries have the cybertools, the organizational capacity and a sufficient understanding of the Canadian political landscape to try to fiddle with the October ballot, should they have the inclination.
“Even if a foreign adversary does develop strategic intent to interfere with Canada’s democratic process, we consider foreign cyberinterference of the scale of Russian activity against the 2016 United States presidential election improbable at this time,” the report says.
“However, we judge it very likely that Canadian voters will encounter some form of foreign cyberinterference ahead of, and during, the 2019 federal election.”
A group of five senior public servants will decide whether an act of foreign interference warrants ringing the public alarm bell about a serious threat to the coming election.