Canada’s telecommunications industry has been pressing Ottawa to treat cellphone tower attacks, believed to be the work of anti-5G conspiracy theorists, as a national security threat, documents show.
The chief executive officers of Canada’s largest wireless carriers wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and several ministers on May 5 to say a rash of fires targeting telecom infrastructure in Quebec “must not be regarded as mere random incidents of arson.”
Similar attacks in Britain have prompted a counterterrorism investigation, said the letter, which was signed by the CEOs of Rogers Communications Inc., BCE Inc., Telus Corp. and Quebecor Inc.'s Videotron Ltd., and obtained by The Globe and Mail through an Access to Information Act request.
The CEOs called on the federal government to treat attacks against Canada’s critical infrastructure with a “similar level of concern," given the effect they can have on the availability of emergency services such as 9-1-1.
“In these challenging times, it is more important than ever to maintain our world-class networks to keep Canadians connected,” said the letter, which was also sent to Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, and Navdeep Bains, the Innovation, Science and Industry Minister.
They made their request amid more than half a dozen fires at cell towers in Quebec, part of a global trend driven by conspiracy theories spreading through social media. These theories claim the radio waves used for fifth-generation wireless service either spread COVID-19 or weaken the immune system, making people more susceptible to the coronavirus that causes the disease.
Scientists and public-health experts say there is no evidence to support these assertions, which have been amplified online by celebrities such as British rapper M.I.A. and actor Woody Harrelson, and have prompted people around the world to vandalize cell towers and harass network technicians.
Police in several countries, including Canada, have recognized such activity as a threat to national security, according to a five-page bulletin issued by the RCMP to select industry and government stakeholders.
“Property damage to telecommunications sites is considered damage to critical infrastructure and falls within the national security mandate,” reads the April 21 bulletin by the RCMP’s National Critical Infrastructure Team, titled 5G Network/COVID-19 Conspiracies: Vandalism Targeting Telecommunications Infrastructure. The NCIT acts as an information and warning conduit between various industry officials and the federal police force.
The RCMP memo, obtained by The Globe through the same information request, advised its readers to relay information about sabotage not only to local police but also to the NCIT or the RCMP-led Integrated National Security Enforcement Teams. The memo includes a tip line at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
While two individuals were arrested by local police and charged with arson and mischief in connection with the Quebec blazes, it’s unclear whether a counterterrorism investigation was launched. Officials for CSIS and the RCMP would not speak to whether they have conducted such probes.
Observers said that if federal counterterrorism agencies such as CSIS or the RCMP-led INSET were to get involved, it would result in a different type of investigation than those conducted by local law enforcement.
In national security investigations, “you’re trying to identify threats and prevent them from happening either through arrests or other measures,” says Leah West, a former Department of Justice lawyer who lectures on national security matters at Carleton University in Ottawa.
So while local police would work toward charges such as arson, mischief or vandalism, she said, federal investigative agencies would have other options. For example, CSIS intelligence officers have been given the legal latitude to take steps to “disrupt” threats to national security.
Meantime, the RCMP’s INSET works closely with federal prosecutors to pursue Criminal Code terrorism charges – offences which, if proven in court, could result in relatively stiff sentences.
Any national security investigation can only go as far the evidence takes it, Ms. West said. That said, any acts of sabotage against Canada’s communications grid could be taken quite seriously by authorities. “Attacks on critical infrastructure motivated by political beliefs would potentially qualify as terrorism – and it would be appropriate that all of our investigative tools in our toolbox would be used to prevent those attacks,” she said.
Communications and information technology is one of 10 designated critical infrastructure sectors in Canada.
“The government continuously works to enhance critical infrastructure resilience by identifying threats and hazards, sharing information on these findings with stakeholders, and working with industry partners to prepare for disruptions and incidents to better protect Canada and Canadians,” Zarah Malik, a spokesperson for Public Safety Canada, said in an e-mail.
The attacks stopped following the arrests, but there continues to be heightened security monitoring of telecom infrastructure, according to an industry source familiar with the matter. The Globe is not identifying the source because the person is not authorized to discuss the issue publicly.
Some carriers, including Rogers, have installed security cameras at some of their tower sites for additional safety.
Telus, which acquired the Canadian arm of ADT Security Services Inc. for $700-million about a year ago, is using the same security monitoring systems it offers its clients to protect its own cell towers and other network infrastructure, a company spokesperson said in an e-mail.
Telus also reached out to Mr. Blair’s office directly to discuss the tower attacks. The company communicated with the Public Safety Minister, whose office oversees CSIS and the RCMP, on May 8, according to the federal lobbyist registry.
The federal agency said it did not direct police forces in their handling of the arson attacks. “As acts such as this are criminal in nature, they are investigated and dealt with by the appropriate police of jurisdiction," Ms. Malik said.
Marc Choma, a spokesperson for BCE’s Bell Canada, said that Canadian telecom networks have played an important role in the country’s response to the pandemic and that attacks such as those that occurred in Quebec “pose a significant potential threat.”
“We worked closely with law enforcement in the investigations of these incidents, and continue to monitor our network infrastructure and enhance security measures where appropriate,” Mr. Choma said in a statement.
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