Canada can expect election meddling, but not on scale seen in U.S., spies warn

The Communications Security Establishment released an assessment on the upcoming federal election

A voter casts a ballot in the 2011 federal election in Toronto on May 2, 2011. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

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.

READ MORE: Ottawa moves to clamp down on potential meddling in next federal election

In an assessment released on Monday, 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.

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press

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