Toronto Star ePaper

Foreign foes likely to target federal vote

Widespread use of social media puts Canadians at risk, spy agency warns


Foreign adversaries will likely target Canada’s next federal election campaign through cyber activities, including the use of “deepfakes,” and identifying the perpetrators will be increasingly more difficult, warns Canada’s electronic spy agency.

It’s part of a rising global trend in which democratic processes are being targeted and voters are most at risk, according to a new Communications Security Establishment report addressing the surge of cyber threats.

The report, the fourth update since 2017, does not look at disinformation in general or in-person foreign interference, but at global cyber threat activities that involve some kind of hacking, as it warns Canadians that the increasing accessibility to generative artificial intelligence will make it a staple of cyber threat activities.

Just over a quarter of all election campaigns worldwide in 2022 had at least one incident of a cyber threat activity, an increase from 10 per cent in 2015 and 23 per cent in 2021, the report found.

“Foreign adversaries are increasingly using cyber tools to target democratic processes around the world,” the report said. “Disinformation has become ubiquitous in national elections, and adversaries are now using generative artificial intelligence (AI) to create and spread fake content.”

Although Canada remains a lower priority than countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, any cyber threat activity affecting their democratic processes could affect Canadians as well.

The Communications Security Establishment report did not provide any examples specific to Canada, but explained that Canadians are potentially a significant target due to their widespread social media use.

Canada’s efforts to promote human rights and international security also make it a target, the report says, adding that it’s also at more risk during periods of “heightened bilateral tensions.”

That’s no reason for panic, Defence Minister Bill Blair told reporters, as CSE is well-prepared to combat the threat.

“We’re seeing more activities among hostile state actors and other actors as well, and I think it’s really important first of all that we have a robust system to detect, to identify and to communicate when that misinformation is presented to Canadians and at the same time creating awareness among Canadians,” Blair said.

But these threats have been difficult to track. Of all cyber threat activities reported in 2022, 85 per cent could not be attributed to a specific state-sponsored actor.

The rest were attributed to China and Russia, the only two countries the report mentions as perpetrators.

That’s because foreign adversaries are increasingly outsourcing their activities, and are relying on constantly improving obfuscation techniques to avoid being linked to the cyber threat activities.

These activities include: attacks against election authority websites and electronic voting systems; unauthorized access to voter databases to collect private information; attacks against elections officials and politicians; attempts to manipulate election results; and the use of bot social media accounts to influence political discussions, according to the report.

In doing so, foreign adversaries aim to put into question election results, reduce voter turnout and promote divisive discourse, in hopes of undermining confidence in democratic processes, leaders and institutions as a whole.

In the long-term, the goal includes co-opting domestic social movements to promote foreign interests.

Canada’s research chair in cybersecurity and threat intelligence told the Star more attention needs to be paid to “social cybersecurity” campaigns that spread misinformation and fringe views daily on social networks, rather than focusing on interference with voting processes.

“When you hack the democratic process, it is more about managing the people’s thoughts and behaviour. And those kind of attacks are happening daily,” said Ali Dehghantanha, a professor at the University of Guelph. “These kinds of attacks are getting very mature and very significant.”

In August and September of this year, dozens of Canadian politicians including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre were targeted by one such campaign.

Dubbed “Spamouflage,” the campaign used sophisticated deepfake videos and more than 5,000 posts on social media to spread misinformation and conspiracy theories targeting at least 50 Canadian politicians.

Canada and China have had a fractured relationship in recent years, and allegations of Chinese foreign interference reverberated across the country earlier this year. Relations with Russia have also been rocky since President Vladimir Putin’s regime invaded Ukraine in 2021.

In September, tensions arose between Canada and India after Trudeau said there was credible evidence that India had been involved in the killing of Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in British Columbia, an allegation India denies.





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