Spy agency to school political parties on cyberthreats

Canada’s electronic spy agency is starting to work with politicians and political parties to protect them from the growing threat of cyberattacks in the lead-up to the next general election.

The move comes as the federal government tries to insulate the Canadian democratic process from hackers, regardless of whether they are hacktivists, thrill seekers or rival governments. In addition to spreading fake news and propaganda, cyberattacks can threaten the privacy rights of voters, suppress turnout and lead to blackmail of politicians.

Of all of the elections that were held around the world this year, 13 per cent were hit by cyberattacks, said a report released by the Communications Security Establishment on Friday.

Read more: Why Canada’s hacker king is very afraid

Officials from the federal agency in charge of cybersecurity and electronic surveillance will start working with all registered political parties next week to engage in prevention, stating it is basically the only way to deal with the threat.

“There is range of different cyberactors at play,” CSE chief Greta Bossenmaier told reporters on Friday. “It’s only by building that basis of resilience, regardless of who the threat actor is, that we can best defend and protect the government systems.”

However, government officials refused to say whether political parties would have access to classified data to better protect themselves.

“That will be an opportunity for parties to engage for the first time with CSE,” said Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould. “This is a good opportunity for parties to have direct relationships with the CSE to be able to raise any concerns that they have in a manner of confidence and trust.”

As part of a study that was requested by the federal government, CSE determined that Elections Canada’s processes are mostly paper-based, or stored on secure electronic systems, which shields them from most cyberthreats. However, CSE said political parties and media organizations are likely to be hit by the same types of attacks that have affected recent elections in the United States, France and other countries around the world.

“Setting aside unforeseeable events, we judge that, almost certainly, multiple hacktivist groups will deploy cybercapabilities in an attempt to influence the democratic process in 2019. Hacktivists will likely study the success of past influence operations and adopt more sophisticated and successful activities,” said the report, titled Cyber Threats to Canada’s Democratic Process.

The report added that provincial and municipal elections could also be targeted by foreign actors wishing to influence the voting process to advance their economic interests.

“In particular, we know that certain nation-states have core interests that can be affected by Canadian policies related to natural resources, which are often made at the provincial/territorial level,” the report said. “Hacktivists may begin to view subnational elections, political parties and politicians, and the media as worthy targets.”

CSE has not found any evidence of major tampering by other countries during the 2015 general election. However, trends around the world suggest that Canada is increasingly at risk.

“To date, we have not observed nation-states using cybercapabilities with the purpose of influencing the democratic process in Canada during an election. We assess that whether this remains the case in 2019 will depend on how Canada’s nation-state adversaries perceive Canada’s foreign and domestic policies, and on the spectrum of policies espoused by Canadian federal candidates in 2019,” the report said.

The most likely victims of cyberattacks are politicians themselves, political parties and news organizations, with the attacks aimed at suppressing voter turnout, stealing voter information and influencing results, CSE said.

The agency has assessed that foreign countries are “the most capable adversaries,” but that less sophisticated actors, such as hacktivists, cybercriminals, terrorists and thrill seekers, are more likely to be active in Canada.

“Deterring cyberthreat activity is challenging because it is often difficult to detect, attribute, and respond to in a timely manner. As a result, the cost/benefit equation tends to favour those who use cybercapabilities rather than those who defend against their use,” the report said.

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